As she stares at the lifeless book rack of her son, the mother talks about his last promise. She had dusted miles, sought intervention of godmen and spent sleepless nights to bring him back from woods. But he had made up his mind. 100 days later, when the insurgent son returned in a body bag, she made it sure to live by that promise.
By Bilal Handoo
Throughout those sleepless nights, she would vainly wait for her rebel son’s promised arrival. With every ruffle, her heart would skip a beat. Perhaps, he’s finally home, she would feel, and rise from the bed.
But like those moonless nights, the ‘light of her eyes’ was nowhere to be seen. In this maddening wait, the mother had long lost her sleep.
Her son, whom she called ‘Miermond’—the beloved—had left home on that late summer day on August 31, without giving her any clue of his plans.
Since then, she would keep her family members awake, nagging them, out of motherly concern: “Wake up. See, if my ‘Miermond’ has come! He might be at doorsteps. Go and unlock the gate…”
Every time her husband or elder son would rise to check, they would be greeted by the silent night, which had no clue of her son.
But that night, on 9 December 2018, was different.
It was a fifth night, since the three shadowy figures had appeared at her parent’s home, where she had gone to nurse her burdened heart.
Somehow, the word had reached to her rebel son that his mother was dying in his longing. So, one night, he decided to show up, along with his two associates.
On the night of his sudden arrival, the anguished mother, Mehbooba came rushing out of her room to embrace him. For the first time in those four months, she cried her heart to him.
But, as she could see, her son, Saqib Bilal, was a changed person now. He had put up some weight and grown beard in less than 100 days away from home. He was no longer that skinny teenager—a foodie—who would pester and love her. There was no boyish eagerness in him—with which he would fight with his kid-sister, for sleeping besides his mother.
That son was gone now.
And the one, who had walked out of his underground, was a resolute rebel, who had come to do some talking.
But all Mehbooba knew that night, was that Saqib was still her beloved son — whom she ‘loved the most’ among her three children, including her daughter, studying in Class IV.
“What’s this, mother,” the insurgent son began. “Why have you abandoned home like this? Listen, I was destined to become what I became. So, be brave, as I always knew you. And accept this reality now. Go home. Abu Ji is alone there, and it’s not good.”
The sobbing mother could only stare at her son’s amber eyes, gleaming in the night when the mother and the son were meeting in complete hush.
As she narrates that night meeting now, inside her home visited by known and unknown mourners, Mehbooba turns thoughtful: “If only I had known that he was about to choose his path, I would’ve served him with my marrow!”
The remark quietens the room. And then, she resumes narrating the nocturnal reunion.
Mehbooba had lot of questions to ask. She wanted to ask her son: ‘Why did he choose gun? Why did he leave the way he did? Didn’t he even care about his mother who loved him with her life?’
But, given the manner he had come, all those queries remained unasked, and now forever unanswered.
“I promise you,” he told her, showing urgency to leave, “I’ll soon spend a night with you at home. One full night! And yes, stop visiting those godmen. I’ve chosen my path!”
The inconsolable mother hugged him again, before he vanished from her sight. As the three armed shadows of the night walked back to woods, the scene broke the mother’s heart.
She was sure now, that Saqib wouldn’t return. And the same fact was driving her insane. It was not that simple reality, as it appeared. She was mindful of the consequence of her son’s decision.
In Hajin, they know her as someone who frequents the martyrs’ families for showing her solidarity. But now, she was staring at a different reality. Her own son, who had left home, as a matter of routine, had ended up as an insurgent in a signature style—with which the young boys now join insurgency in Kashmir.
But when Saqib left, Mehbooba tried everything to bring him home.
For about a month or so, she visited different godmen in different parts of the valley, who asked her to go for sacrifice. She sacrificed scores of lambs and distributed their meat among the needy for her son’s safe return.
Nothing helped, until one day, his photo with a new firearm—other than a usual AK-47—went viral on social media.
“That was it,” Mehbooba says, in a room packed with long faced mourners. “I stopped looking for him after that.”
Saqib had chosen the path. Even as the family would later shot an emotional homecoming appeal to him, he stayed firm.
But given her son’s happy-go-lucky nature, Mehbooba never thought that he would end up becoming an insurgent. Now, when he did, she resigned herself to a fate. Lost in longing. She became a frozen frame.
However, the five nights that followed her meeting with Saqib, Mehbooba would stare at the door, anticipating the promised arrival. But her son was taking his own time, until, on 9 December 2018, the long-feared fatal news spread about him.
That day, as dawn rose, Mehbooba woke up with a heavy heart. It was a different feeling from her usual longing. Something didn’t feel right. Gifted with intuition, mothers tend to read the coming events beforehand. Her distressed mind was perhaps a sign of one such coming event.
As the day progressed, she abandoned her routine orchard visit. By noon, a word had reached Hajin that one of its rebel sons, the minor militant named Mudasir is among those killed in the Mujgund gunfight that had started in the evening of December 8.
“When it was certain that Mudasir is among those killed, I took my daughter and bought a candy packet for his final homecoming,” Mehbooba says, taking a walk from the packed room of mourners towards her son’s room.
While preparing for Mudasir’s arrival, even Mehbooba realised, that she was faking her normalcy. Saqib could be there, too, she thought, and almost petrified over the dead son’s arrival, who was yet to fulfil his promise.
For a moment, that night meeting came alive in her distressed mind. Her son had arrived with two others, and one of them was Mudasir—with whom he had rushed to insurgency from Hajin’s football field on August 31. The third one, she would later learn, was a Pakistani militant, whom her family members identified as Ali Bhai.
The trio would operate as a single unit, in and around Hajin, as per the local legend. And now when the news had come from Mujigund that three insurgents have been killed, Mehbooba thought for a while: “Maybe, Saqib…”
She was thrown out of her trance, when some village boys with whom her son used to play, ran past her home, screaming: “Jigar ha gov shaheed, ti jigar ha tchatun” (Our beloved achieved martyrdom and left us shattered.)
That heartbreaking cry fell on the ears of Saqib’s sister, Nazima, who began crying: “Mammi. Dapaniey, Pyara Bhaya ti chu!” (Mother, they say, ‘Pyara Bhaya’ [Nazima’s pet name for Saqib] is also among the killed.)
After becoming an insurgent, Nazima’s “Pyara Bhaya” had become “Jigar” for village boys.
It was almost clear now. Mehbooba’s son had indeed left without fulfilling his promise.
Struggling to make sense of her sudden loss, the mother tried to put up a face, a stony face. After all, she realised, she has to live by her reputation. She had seen many funerals and had participated in peoples’ grief.
But now, the loss was too personal, so was mourning.
Soon as her home rented with cries and wails, she started packing sweets for her sweetheart son. Once done with hasty—yet maddening—preparations, she asked everyone: “Wash me up. My groom is finally on his way home!”
But like always, her son was taking time to come home.
At Mujgund, one police officer would tell Mehbooba’s brother, that “Saqib was the last among the trio to get killed”.
After Mudasir, it was a Pakistani militant Ali Bhai who was killed, leaving Saqib, alone, to face the world’s second largest standing army. It’s believed, that he kept fighting by changing his positions, and took the gunfight for over 18-long hours.
“At the end of the gunfight,” Saqib’s maternal uncle says, “the forces mutilated his face, in sheer vengeance, before sending his body to Police Control Room (PCR).”
At PCR, Saqib’s father was unable to identify his son. His grown beard, muscular frame and now deformed face had created doubts in his mind. He would repeatedly phone his family back home, announcing, as if, the happy news: “It’s not our son!”
To assure himself, he made multiple rounds of the police mortuary. “One last time when I came out, a cop called me,” recalls Sheikh Bilal, Saqib’s father. “He told me, ‘Look carefully. I think he is your son. Every time you walk away from him, he opens his eyes!’ ”
Hearing this, the father took a long and careful look at the deformed face, and almost fainted adjacent to his son’s dead body.
At Hajin, Mehbooba was restlessly preparing herself to welcome her “groom”.
It was a chilly twilight and sea of mourners had already assembled in her yard. At around 7, a vehicle in a caravan of jostling crowd arrived, filling the air with cries and slogans.
While everyone rushed to greet Hajin’s “sweetheart”, Saqib’s mother stood motionless on her porch. He had indeed put some weight, as the mourners were struggling to lift him up. This struggle set the woeful mother in motion.
She walked through the crowd, struggled to move ahead, and embraced the lifeless son. He was soon lifted on a bed, along with his mother.
“I kissed his forehead and quietly whispered into his right ear, with folded hands: ‘Wyen dizieum sabr’ (Help me to bear your loss.) I realised there and then only that he was a dream I was dreaming, which ended too soon for me,” she says, trying to control her emotions near Saqib’s book rack.
That evening, she welcomed her son with slogans and songs. Amid those slogans, Saqib had become a relic in the night, when hardly anyone was sleeping in Hajin.
But for the mother, the promised night was yet to begin. The son had to fulfil his promise, she would tell everyone: “He has to spend his promised night with me, before he will go again.”
Then, around midnight, Saqib was taken inside a room, where Mehbooba tried to give him a silent company. But, at times, her longing would cut her loose. She would leap forward to embrace him, raise heartbroken cries and leave everyone in the room numb with pain.
His mutilated face that night reminded her of Bollywood actress Tabu’s heaps of praises for his features. During “Haider” film’s shoot in Kashmir, the actress was left mesmerised by Saqib’s striking face.
But now, the same face had been tarnished to mother’s torment. Deep inside, she wanted the reel moment in “Haider” movie, when her child artist son raises like a phoenix from a truckload of corpses, screaming—‘I’m alive!’… ‘I’m alive!’, to become a real moment. “But then, it was too much to ask,” Mehbooba says. “I knew I was now staring at my martyr.”
Nearby, that night, stood Saqib’s uncle, who had introduced him to Vishal Bharadwaj as a child artist. He was playing an emotional number for his dead nephew. It was specially written and prepared on Saqib’s request.
The song wanted to bring his attention towards his longing family, while he was away seeking “gun solution” to Kashmir’s protracted political problem.
“That night, my Allah showed me that he was indeed with me, fulfilling his promise,” Mehbooba recalls. “He would open his eyes upon hearing my pleas. It was just that he was silent and turning cold with each passing moment.”
Stroking his face, in a pampered manner, Mehbooba, that night, was reminded of Saqib’s usual protest while lifelessly looking at his distorted lips: “Mummy, those girls mock me saying that I come wearing lipstick to school!”
Those rosy lips were now burnt and black. And it was breaking the mother’s heart.
“I perfectly understand he was their enemy,” Mehbooba says, “but did he deserve to be treated so inhumanly? His eye, face and lips were mutilated in a very ghastly manner. What kind of army does that? It’s breaking my heart. May no mother see her son like that!”
Beyond gunfights and funerals, when rebels return home in Kashmir on a final homecoming, they made their mothers to do some uncanny things. Mehbooba did the same, in an hour of her deep distress that night.
She put her fingers into the bullet wounds on her son’s chest, and smeared his blood on her own bosom!
The mourners now recall it as the “scene of Karbala” for the mother — who, from the past four months, was on her toes for her son, who was now lying dead by her side.
In the same longing, the night finally passed.
The next day, Mehbooba and her daughter were shouldered on the same bed carrying Saqib to his final destination. On the way, young girls of Hajin would apply henna on his beard.
And when the parting moment came, the tearful mother once again folded her hands, and whispered into her son’s right ear: “Do come to my dream now, and tell me everything about you.”
But the mother is yet to dream that dream, because ever since her son ran from Hajin’s football field, she is unable to sleep a wink.
This story first appeared in January 2019 Print Issue of The Indus Post.