BENGALURU, Karnataka — At 3:45 am on 10 August, five days after the Indian government cut all phone lines and blacked out the internet in Jammu & Kashmir, Molvi Abdul Hai left his house in Srinagar without informing his wife, son or daughter-in-law. Something had been troubling the 83-year-old former teacher for a while and so he decided to act.
In his hurry to slip out of his home, he packed haphazardly and even wore mismatched footwear. A student drove him past a couple of checkpoints manned by sleepy uniformed personnel to the airport, where he boarded an Indigo flight non-stop to Bangalore. He had forgotten to lock his bag and when he eventually opened it, many of his possessions, including his medicines, were missing.
On the flight Hai met a woman with an infant who was returning home because her mother had just died.
“She was coming to pay her respects and didn’t know if her mother had been buried yet,” he said.
The moment he landed in Kempegowda International Airport, he switched on his phone and made a call. “I’m at the Bangalore airport,” he told his shocked granddaughter Daniya, who answered with the question: “Where are you?”
Daniya, who is 22 years old, was in class at a Bengaluru college and blinked when her phone flashed the familiar Kashmir number. Like thousands of other Kashmiris working or studying across India, she had had no contact with her family back home since the lockdown.
August 10, the day Hai landed in Bengaluru, was Daniya’s mother’s birthday and she had written a poem on Facebook about how her mother seemed so far away. Just the day before, her class had started learning about Kashmir as part of a course on geopolitics, and her fellow students were reluctant to even accept the legitimacy of the historical documents the teacher showed them.
Article 370 of the Indian constitution granted Kashmir “special status”, and was a pre-condition for the state joining the Indian union. On August 5 2019, the Indian government had nullified this provision, bifurcated Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories, and put the local population under military siege.
Now her maternal grandfather had slipped past the security cordons in Srinagar and flown almost the entire length of the country to come to spend Eid with her in Bengaluru.
Daniya says her Nana never says no.
“He always says go experience it,” she said.
When Daniya wanted a tattoo and her mother said no citing Islam, she asked her Nana what he thought.
“He doesn’t impose religion, he always uses logic,” she said.
Hai asked her, “Do you pray five times? Do you fast? Do you give zakat?”
When she answered no to all those must-dos, he said then why all the fuss about a tattoo.
“I knew she must have been worrying if we were okay, if her parents were alive,” Hai said, of his granddaughter. “What would she do on Eid alone?”
He had wanted her to come home for the festival but when the situation in Kashmir deteriorated suddenly, the family realised she wouldn’t make it.
So he decided to deliver the news that they were okay in person.
“I knew she was sad. I thought two sad people…” his voice trails away.
The Bangalore taxi driver who ferried him to the city saw a gullible target in the shaky senior citizen with the walking stick who was travelling alone and overcharged him.
“I’m 83, I’ve never seen people so fearful and terrified,” he recalled over a cup of sweet, milky tea and apple pie. He held his walking stick in his left hand even while sitting and jabbed the table for emphasis with his right hand. He suffered a hairline fracture of his spine when he slipped during the Kashmir floods of 2014 and he still needs to rest his back regularly.
“The doctor has asked me to sit like this,” he said, leaning back and demonstrating the position that puts the least stress on his back.
“I have seen Hari Singh’s reign. I have seen 1947, 1965 and 1972. I came by foot from Anantnag to Srinagar when Sheikh Abdullah was arrested in 1953,” Hai said. “But I have never seen any happiness or peace in Kashmir in all these years.”
The worry is clearly etched on his face. Hai said that though people are critical of former Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad from 1953 to 1964, things eased off a bit in the years when he was in charge of the administration. “I’ve never seen so much fear in any previous curfew. Nobody knows what’s going to happen next. There are so many problems that I have even forgotten myself.”
Hai’s father was a teacher too. He couldn’t afford the 7 rupees a month fee that was required to hire a teacher for his son and so he taught him himself at home. Hai would go on to get a triple PhD and start his own educational institute after years of working at The National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) in Delhi and being a professor.
He sounds anguished and exasperated when he talks about Kashmir today. “Everything we use in Kashmir is sourced from India. We don’t have any industries of our own. Even Nun Chai comes from Bengal. The clothes we wear are Indian. Which idiots say we are not Indians?”
“We are just not recognised as Indians,” Daniya said.
Hai said the government’s decision to strike down Article 370, which had governed the state of Jammu & Kashmir for so many decades, is purely a political play. “The government had no other pressing matters in any other state to start its five-year term? What about all the floods that are plaguing parts of India now? Why don’t they focus on such things?”
Like most Kashmiris, Hai is only too familiar with loss. “He had three sons and a daughter,” said Daniya. “Now he has one son and a daughter.”
Hai’s son Rizwan will be familiar to anyone who has read Agha Shahid Ali’s searing collection of poems The Country Without a Post Office. In I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight the poet writes:
‘Rizwan it’s you, Rizwan it’s you,’ I cry out as he steps closer, the sleeves of his phiran torn…Don’t tell my father I have died, he says…”
Hai was like a son to the poet’s father, renowned educationist Agha Ashraf Ali, and the two families are still very close. After Rizwan was murdered, Shahid Ali stopped coming to Kashmir.
“I have passed my childhood in temples and mosques but now I see humanity is the biggest religion. We have to work with each other, be there for each other, understand each other’s pain,” Hai said sadly.
For today though, he’s glad he will be spending Eid with his granddaughter.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based writer and columnist.