All Alone: The unending struggle of a half-widow and her daughter to come to grips with their loss

  • Aamir Ali Bhat
  • Publish Date: Jan 1 2018 11:46AM
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  • Updated Date: Jan 1 2018 11:46AM
All Alone: The unending struggle of a half-widow and her daughter to come to grips with their loss

Naseema Akhter, 35, is waiting for her husband to fulfill his promise. “I will return soon,” Syed Anwar Shah promised her when he left for work that morning. That was in 2002. “He never returned,” Naseema says, her voice faint.

Naseema and Anwar, then a 25-year-old painter, were married in 1999. They stayed in a rented apartment in Wazir Bagh, Srinagar, along with Anwar’s handicapped brother, Mushtaq Ahmad, and his aged mother, Haseena Banu. They were happy, Naseema says. “Anwar and I used to eat in one plate,” she says. “Those memories are still fresh in my mind.”

Today, Naseema lives with her daughter Shazia, born in 2000, in an unfinished one-room and kitchen house atop a hillock in Grandwan, Aishmuqam, in Anantnag district. 

“I still remember my last talk with Anwar,” Naseema says. “He left home at nine in the morning to finish a painting job. He told me he would return, but he never did.”

Naseema initially thought work had kept her husband but when he didn’t return even after a couple of days, they went searching. “We asked every relative and friend, but there was no trace of Anwar,” Naseema says.

She and her mother-in-law then turned to jails because, as Shazia says, “the army and the police taking away men without any reason was the norm those days”. “My grandmother and mother went to Kot Bhawal, Udampur, Srinagar Central Jail and every other jail in Kashmir,” she says, “but they did not find my father anywhere.”

When Anwar did not turn up in their searches, Naseema reported his disappearance to the police. “We visited the police station almost every day, but never got a clue about Anwar. One day the police told me my husband was untraceable. They made an SRO case, but we never got anything from that,” she says, referring to the state government’s policy of providing monetary compensation and jobs to families of the victims of the militancy. 

Naseema also approached the Jammu and Kashmir High Court. “After fighting the case for years, we were recently told to get three witnesses who could testify that we will return everything the authorities give us if my husband returns,” says Naeema. “Our witnesses have testified before the court. We are waiting now.”

Shazia adds, “My family has been running from pillar to post for 15 years to get justice for my father, but we never got anything. In that time, 15 deputy commissioners have come and gone in Srinagar.”

Shazia didn’t know about her father till she was 8. Growing up, she called her uncle father. “I always wanted to see my daughter happy,” Naseema explains. “Hiding the truth about the disappearance of her father was painful, but I had to do it.” 

But when Shazia started to sense that the man she thought was her father was really her uncle, she began asking questions. “One day Shazia insisted I tell her about Anwar; I just burst out crying and told her.”

“It came like a blow,” Shazia chips in, sitting beside her mother. “I cried for a week.”

All Naseema has of her husband, other than the memories and Shazia, is an old photograph. “On the 10th of every month, she holds the picture of Anwar and takes part in a sit-in protest organised by the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons at Pratap Park in Srinagar,” Naseema says, referring to her daughter.

Although Naseema’s brother-in-law and mother-in-law helped her after Anwar’s disappearance, it was not easy bringing up a child on her own. 

Naseema registered herself with the APDP in 2010 and after the death of her mother-in-law in 2013, she returned to her paternal home, where she was given a small piece of land on which she built the house, with help from the APDP.

The APDP also provides for Shazia’s education. “I was studying in a government school until we registered with the APDP,” Shazia says. “In 2010, with the APDP’s help, I got admitted in a private school in the city and when we moved here, they admitted me in a private school in Aishmuqam.”

Her relatives have been urging Naseema to remarry, but she doesn’t want to. “I live my life for my daughter,” she says, clutching Shazia tenderly. “I want to educate her and make her life better.”

Shazia, on her part, is determined to make her mother proud. “I want to become a lawyer and fight cases like my father’s,” she says. “I can feel the pain of mothers and daughters whose loved ones disappeared and who don’t have anyone to look after them. It’s difficult living life like we do.”

Naseema’s day begins with a trek up and down the hill to fetch water from a tube well. For a living, Naseema does household chorus in the village. “People call me when they need some work done,” she says. “I earn around 1,000 rupees a month.”

Naseema rues it’s hard being a single mother in Kashmir. She says that people often look at her suspiciously. “Since we are two women living alone, we often face difficult questions from our neighbours,” Naseema says. 

If that wasn’t enough, the mother and daughter are constantly worried about their safety, living as they do at an isolated place. “Some nights ago, someone kicked our door and windows. It has happened a couple of times,” Naseema says. “But who do we complain to. We both bear these kinds of things every day.”