This is the story of Mir Basit Hussain, who is a senior journalist and Editor Publications at Free Press Kashmir. He started his career at ESPN, later moved to The Sunday Guardian and also worked as a Sport Corrospondent in Qatar. He graduated from Aligarh Muslim University in 2006.
Under regular circumstances, a house swarmed with people would resemble the site of a wedding celebration. With people rushing in and out as if their lives depended on it, any bystander unaware of the ‘Kashmir situation’ would assume it to be a busy station of business or revelry. However, sadly it wasn’t a happy occasion that had brought them together but a ringing electronic box.
My landline, earlier rendered useless by growing connectivity through mobile phones, had become a lifeline – a channel for strangers and friends to reach out to the world they had been forcefully stopped from contacting.
Today, the world will complete 70 days since its oblivion towards Kashmir. A ‘feat’ of this degree was made possible by the harshest clampdown imposed by the government of India in the conflict-ridden valley.
The communication gag, which has seriously dented the image of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ on international platforms, was imposed after New Delhi stripped Kashmir of its autonomy and downgraded the federal state into a pair of union territories.
Sixty seven days since the lockdown and communication shutdown, the government of India – which had otherwise maintained that everything was normal in the valley, finally admitted in an advertisement in Greater Kashmir that nothing was on track. The advertisement asked people in bold writing ‘Why Fear?’ and further asserted that nobody was benefitting by closed shops, schools and public transport. The ad pricked the ‘normalcy balloon’ which the government had held high since the 4th of August.
The bareness and uneasiness caused by the severed communication lines, an almost obsolete piece of technology, fixed-line telephony (commonly known as landlines) resumed its ancient importance across the region now cold and dry.
On August 17, a handful of landline connections were made functional and by September 4, while the government stated that all connections were restored, only a few additional machines were brought back into operation, one of them being the one in my house, in Qammarwari.
Situated between the defiant Downtown and the so-called ‘calm’ uptown of Srinagar city, Qammarwari erupted with anxious joy when they learnt that a landline was functional. As soon as neighbours heard the telephone ring after such a long time, one of them exclaimed, “Basit ka phone chal gaya. Tooba, abh tum university walon ko contact kar sakti ho. (Basit’s phone is functional, Tooba, now you contact the university).”
I live in Qammarwari and Tooba, my neighbour is an aspiring teenager who had applied for studies in a university in Punjab and was very excited about her future. Just when the young girl was looking forward to getting the education she deserved, Article 370 was abrogated and Kashmir was disconnected from the rest of the world.
She tried to reach her institution through my landline which had by then become a seer. Everybody wanted its ‘blessings’ and people started thronging my house.
“It is me Rashida. We are alive!,” said one of my neighbours to her brother who lives in Delhi. She then pulled out a list of numbers and started ringing them all. On finishing her calling marathon, she turned towards me and showered as many blessings she could. While walking away from the telephone’s corner, relieved after speaking to her loved ones, she saw that the room was packed with worried faces, waiting for their turn.
“This is the number I will be available on,” Amina said blushingly. The heena on her hands was still very fresh. “I hope you are okay. Please take care and keep me posted on this number. I will be here tomorrow exactly at 11 am,” the newlywed told her husband who had left for Delhi just days before the clampdown.
The word that the communication line in my house had been restored spread like wildfire and people began pouring in. “Get some concentrated juice. It doesn’t look good that we aren’t offering refreshments to the people who are coming in,” my mother, Altafa Yasmin, told me. Even in the harshest of times, she believed in upholding the Kashmiri tradition of hospitality.
It was not just acquaintances coming to use the facility at my home, we began receiving ‘random calls’. A girl from Malaysia called me one day, she saw our number on some list which was doing rounds on social media, as people out of the former state had begun mass circulation of all functional telephone numbers. She wanted to know about her friend who lived in Chattabal – an area far from Qammarwari. I told her we could not go there due to restrictions but assured her that nothing untoward had happened in that area.
One of my friends, a resident of Pune, had posted the number on one of those viral lists informing people about the working landlines in the valley.
A day after the restoration of our landline, I was able to speak with my younger brother, a resident Bangalore. I remember calling him on the eve of the abrogation and fretfully telling him that I did not know when we would speak again. He was somehow sure that broadband connections would not be snapped but the authorities had proven him wrong.
Out of the barrage of random calls my house hosted, I will never be able to forget the one from Saudi Arabia. Suhail, who called from that country wept more than he spoke. He was a native of Barthna which is situated on the outskirts of Srinagar. His house was close to the area of Parimpora where a shopkeeper was killed for resuming his business. He begged and pleaded me to get his mother to our place so that he could talk to her and my parents and I took it upon us to leave no stone unturned in connecting him with his family.
Barthna being far from Qammarwari, was difficult to reach and we weren’t in possession of the exact address, but our domestic help, who lives in Parimpora, helped us form a network of people to get to Suhail’s family. When we finally traced his family, all of them came over – mother, father, brothers and sisters and even a few neighbours. As the son of an aged mother, I could empathise with every bit of what he was going through. When he spoke to me, I was at a loss for words and my heart was silently weeping.
“Basit, I will go to Mecca especially for you. I will perform Umrah for you,” Suhail said with a lump in his throat.
One day when I picked up the ringing phone and greeted the person on the other side with the usual “As-Salam Alikum, kaun bol raha hai?” (Hello, who is this), a feminine voice replied to the standard greeting, most frantically.
She wasn’t Kashmiri or even related to a Kashmiri but wanted to enquire about a few Facebook friends she had in Srinagar. They lived in the Shalimar area according to their profile information. I had to calm her down by saying that we couldn’t go there but no untoward incident had been reported from that area. There was no bad news coming from Shalimar.
As the days went by we got busy tending to unknown calls almost all the time.
A trader, probably a wholesaler based in New Delhi called regularly to enquire about the situation. He had a shop in the Batamaloo area and spoke in a very subdued tone, almost sounding apologetic. He never revealed his name or the place he belonged to hence I assumed him to be a non-Kashmiri pained by our circumstance.
Every time he called, I told him that business has not started yet and there was very little hope of it happening in the near future.
Adults weren’t the only ones using our home as an oasis for emotional redemption, the kids in the neighbourhood, bereft of school and activity had found a new way to entertain themselves. They came over claiming that they had to make calls but recognising their childish mannerisms, I knew that they just wanted to enjoy some snacks. They would dial numbers, obviously wrong, and glumly say, “Bhaiyyaji call nahi lag raha hai.” However, on offering them fresh juice and biscuits their faces would light up. I felt really sorry for them.
“This is not the way a child should grow. They think it is normal here. Shutdowns, clampdowns, no connectivity, clashes, encounters, killings. It is the life of our children every single day but they deserve better. They deserve to be free like every human does,” my mother would repeat everyday powerless and drained, as she attended to unknown guests and children exhausting their energies in our home.
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