Remembering Nikka: bread, blood and memories

It was another day of series of strikes that Kashmir was observing to protest the killings of teenage boys. 

 

On a cool morning in Islamabad, fifty kilometers south of Srinagar, I had just logged into my Facebook, I heard some gunshots. Like anyone born and brought up in a conflict zone, in our imaginary maps me and my brother were trying to locate the site of this action.

 

Like an image in ‘Google Earth’ we figured out that it must not be beyond seven hundred meters from our house. While we were trying to locate the exact site of the still echoing gunshots in our minds, a message flashed on the Facebook: thirteen-year-old boy Arshad Ahmad shot by police at Mattan Chowk.

 

Next everyone around me was on phone trying to know what happened. Within minutes I could see young boys of the same age coming out of the lanes and by-lanes next to my house. They were raising slogans: ‘Jis Kashmir ko Khoon say seencha woh Kashmir Hamara haii’, ‘Go India Go back’. The main road outside my house was now flooded with protesters.

 

 

Boys in the age group of 9-12, 13-19 and 20 and above were now moving towards the site of the incident. One Rakshak (an armored vehicle used by Indian Central Reserve Police Force in Kashmir, Rakshak in Indian Hindi language means protector) intercepted what now looked like a swelling march of young school boys out on a weekend hanging out with friends in their colorful dresses.

 

More gunshots and shells were fired, crowd dispersed. There was an uneasy calm in the town. Soon entire town was under the shadow of uniformed men and Rakshaks. Announcements were made on mosque loudspeakers, one could hear a teenage voice saying ‘CRPF tsayee garan manz ta detekeh shoriayan ta zanaanan chobe, aes cha sarnayee mohalla walen appeal karan zi tem nairayen sadkan peth’ ‘CRPF men have barged into houses beating men, women and children, we appeal to people to come out on the streets’. This message set up a chain-reaction, every mosque across the town echoed the same message.

 

Now the main road was full of protesters young and old, women and children all were on the streets protesting. Uniformed men with rakshaks pounced upon protesters, beating up some, chasing others and soon the situation was brought ‘under control’.

 

In the afternoon these young boys re-emerged as ‘stone-pelters’ from the lanes and by-lanes once again, targeting rakshaks across the town. Pitched battles were fought through out the day.  It was like a crowd of young boys cheering their favorite football club. They had housed themselves ‘safely’ at a distance in the nearby lane and were pelting stones one by one in a relay on rakshaks moving slowly around the town and on the armed policemen hiding behind them.

 

Every one raised the battle cry ‘Bharat ko Ragda’, ‘India-we will trample you’. One after the other the boys raised their arms like experienced pitchers  in the baseball match and aimed  stones on the armored vehicles, clearly visible from the nearby by-lane where these young boys had positioned themselves.

 

As soon as one stone hit the first armored vehicle, everyone in the crowd cheered with whistles and claps. Sound of whistles, gunshots and the smell of smoke shells filled the air. Soon there was a chase the armored vehicle Rakshak entered one of the lanes. Amidst noise of crowds booing at the police, there was a long silence.

 

Exactly after one hour, I once again heard several rounds of gunshots. Within twenty minutes the white Rakshak that I had seen entering the lane came out. Next there were no Rakshaks , no uniformed men on the roads everyone had vanished. After sometime mosque loudspeakers were again abuzz with announcements.

 

But this time compared to previous announcements the messages were announced in a very different tone, ‘Marikheh ho haaaaaaave’ ‘they are killing us’. Every single mosque loudspeaker was broadcasting the message of death. With local news network gagged and cellular message services banned in Kashmir, mosque loudspeakers and Facebook were the only medium left for sharing information.

 

Three young boys Ishtiyaq Ahmad aged 15 years, Imtiyaz Ahmad aged 17 years and Shujat-ul-Islam aged 18 years were shot dead. A doctor in the hospital confirmed their death, ‘they were all shot dead from a point blank range on their heads’.

 

A sea of people was marching towards the hospital to bring the three young teenaged dead bodies back. The late afternoon sky was gradually covering the brightness of the sun. The smoke of shells was now filled with a strange smoke. From a distance some more gunshots were heard. After a while I saw a swelling mass of people coming towards me.

 

 

Three rectangular patches of green moving on a sea of shoulders.  It was like a swelling lake being filled by tributaries of men, women and children coming out of the lanes on to the main road, participating in the funeral procession of these teenaged martyrs. The air was abuzz with songs and slogans ‘aaj teray wastay ro rahi hai yeh jahan…. Ro rahi… zamin…… ro raha hai assmaan………. Oh shaheed o aslam’.

 

Next, early morning before the call of the muezzin, my sleep was disturbed with a different voice, ‘Hazrat District Magistrate sen hukumnaama mutabik  tamaam lukan chu yevan waneh zi tim rozen garan manz Islamabad kasbas manz chu curfew lagna aamut, amech khilaaf varzi karna valyen khilaaf yee sakht khot sakhtt kaarvayee karne’ ‘By order of District Magistrate curfew has been clamped in the town, no one shall be allowed to move out of the house, if any one violates the orders strict legal action shall be taken against him’. I checked my calendar it was 30th of July.

 

Nervous, I called my friends and inquired about the background of all three teenage boys who where shot dead by Indian police a day before. My heart started tumbling with the phone ring. ‘Hello………. Salam……..ailqum’ in a broken voice he answered my call. ‘Nazir kanderyun Nikka, Baba saebn nechuve tae Khandayen Hund ladka’.

 

Without me asking a question, perhaps he had anticipated what anyone would call him for in these difficult times. He started.  ‘Its Nazir the baker’s Nikka, Late Mr. Baba’s Son and a boy from Khanday family’. This information came like a thump.

 

Images of Nikka (in Kashmiri a word used for the youngest son) flashed in front of me. I couldn’t believe Nikka who used to work at the Baker shop could fall to the bullets. I often saw his teenaged hands soaked in dough from morning to evening. He was too young to die. A cheerful young boy who used to chat with every customer, greeting and exchanging smiles with them, Imtiayaz Ahmad whom everyone in my locality used to call Nikka (the youngest one) was the latest victim of the Bullets fired by Indian Police.

 

“I shouldn’t have cancelled the order for making Nan-e-Kushkh’, (Nan-e-Kushukh, special bread made for special occasions like Marriages in Kashmir by traditional bakers) a regretting sobbing voice of Gule Haaji said, as if cancelling of order for the bread was the reason for Nikka’s killing and as if he was responsible for his death.

 

In this part of the world the traditional Bakery shops called Kanderwans are social spaces where people interact and gossip about everything happening in their locality. The baker and the bakery shop here is more of a traditional ‘search engine’ that maintains a ‘data base’ of who is marrying whom, whose daughter-in-law is expecting and who died when.

 

Whenever people place orders for special breads made only for such special occasions the data base is ‘updated’. The traditional bakery shops do brisk business during marriage seasons and the people who work on such shops are expected to be busy from dawn to dusk. ‘On that fateful day we were busy clearing the orders for Nan-e-Kushkhand, I had asked Nikka to prepare dough for Gule Hajji’s order’, said Rashida the Baker, in whose shop Nikka worked.

 

‘I got a call from him that his order stands cancelled, I immediately asked Nikka to stop. It was 3.30 P.M, he asked me as there was no more work in the shop if he could go and visit his friend’s house. I wish I had stopped him. He would have been alive’.

 

Nikka the youngest son of Ahad Kak, who worked at the bakers shop, was laid to rest in his village Watergam, seven kilometers from the town where he worked.

 

After a week long curfew restrictions where no one was allowed to move out of his/her house I finally managed to sneak out of my home. With an undeclared curfew in place (undeclared curfews in Kashmir is a situation where without making any formal announcements state allows restricted movement of people, and police can pick up or stop anyone any time).

 

I somehow managed to avoid restrictions put on our movement by the Indian state.  As I walked down from my house towards Nikka’s village, the Mighty Peerpanjal Mountain on my left was gradually being covered by a white blanket of clouds, like a mother covering her son with a warm blanket from the chilling winter winds of Kashmir.

 

Peer Panjal mountain range separates Kashmir from the rest of the world. I checked my watch I arrived at what looked like a sleepy village around 4 P.M.  I inquired about the Nikka’s house from the village baker’s shop, an old fragile voice answered ‘Nikkaa, yuse Islamabade shaheed karukh? Kole seath yus makan chuue’. ‘Nikka who was martyred at Islamabad? his house is right there next to the stream’. I followed the direction. I saw some women in the courtyard; one elderly looking women was aimlessly staring at the sky.

 

Her gaze was disturbed by my ‘Salamaliqum, Sabzaar cha yatee’. ‘Salamaliqum, can I meet Sabzaar’. Sabzaar (In Kashmiri meaning greenery) whom I knew was Nikka’s elder brother. He initially worked at the Rashid Baker’s shop and later opened his own shop. He married and had moved to a separate house with his wife and two children. The woman I was chatting with instantly asked one of the young girls to call Sabzaar. She insisted that I get inside and wait there. I went inside a three room thatch roofed mud house. In a small dark room I could see what looked like an old ailing man sitting in the corner looking outside from his window. I was introduced by the old lady ‘Ye chu amutt Sabzaaras Chandiney, maye sooz tamis shesh’. ‘He is looking for Sabzaar, I have sent someone to call him’.

 

I sat opposite to Ahad Kak, Nikka’s father. I said Salamaliqum. I was trying to figure how I should start the conversation. What should I tell him, what should I ask him; I was trying to weigh every word to start a conversation, but remained speechless. I heard someone on the door, it was Sabzaar, he instantly recognized me, I got up and hugged him, trying to express my condolences. We settled down, there was an eerie calm in the room.

 

After sometime he asked how I was doing and with moisten eyes and broken voice said ‘we lost Nikka, they murdered him……….. ’. I didn’t know how to respond. I kept quiet for some more time, before he started again, ‘It was 2002, when I got him this job at Rashid’s bakery shop.’ ‘I used to work as a daily wage laborer’ his father added. After elder brother Sabzaar’s marriage who moved out to lively independently, it was  Nikka who supported his aging parents.

 

Confirming what his elder son Sabzaar was trying to say. ‘I gave him a call and asked him to get some fresh bread from his shop, as his sister and her husband were visiting. He was here last week, helping me in the kitchen garden as I was planting the spinach saplings. He left his home for work on Sunday 26th and never returned!’

 

‘On this fateful day I met him in the morning I insisted that he should spent some more time with me, but he said that there is lot of work at the shop and left’ said Sabzaar. ‘I heard the gunshots in the afternoon around 4.30, and hear people crying for help. I am not sure who it was, someone informed me that my brother has been injured, I rushed to his shop……….. I found his shop closed and after inquiring about his whereabouts I rushed to his friend’s house. I saw people rushing towards a black gate. As I entered the gate I saw Imtiyaz Ahmad in his blue jeans and black T-Shirt lying flat in a pool of blood inside the house compound with two of other boys.’

 

Making an imaginary whole on his forehead he said ‘He was shot here. It was a target killing. They shot these boys inside the house compound. Did you see the video that they have taken of this murder………… this is oppression…….they are killing innocent teenagers’ his father added ‘He was not a militant; he was earning a living and supporting his family. They kill young boys labeling them as terrorists……..During the peak of the armed struggle there were instances where most wanted militants were caught with their weapons, they didn’t kill them.

 

Why are they killing innocent teenage boys, who do not wield a gun…….. who pelt stones…….. Imtiyaz even didn’t pelt stones, he was supporting my family ’.  I heard another sobbing voice talking to me, while taking out some papers from a yellow envelope, ‘He met an accident last month, while he was riding a bike………. We  had fixed an appointment with a Doctor at Srinagar next week.. We had paid advance for his treatment…… ’.

 

Shivering hands took out a white receipt displaying on the left side  Dr. Manzoor Ahmad Halwai, M.B.B.S, MD (Orthopedics), Name of the Patient: Imtiyaz Ahmad Itoo, Age:17 Years. Date of appointment: 7th July 2010.  It was 7th July and I was at Imtiyaz’s house talking to his parents about the circumstances that led to his death.

 

‘His friends and acquaintances from the town insisted that we should bury him at Martyrs graveyard. But my wish prevailed……. I am an ailing old man……. I wanted him to be here close to me……… his grave is close by I can go to his grave and send him prayers’ Ahad Kak  Imtiyaz’s father said in a heavy voice. ‘As long as Indian Army stays in Kashmir, we will continue to loose young innocent lives…….By killing people they are trying to crush the movement……. They want people should not ask for azaadi…….. India believes that they can crush the movement by killing innocents Kashmiris’.

 

I was offered traditional Kashmiri tea. In a typical expression of Kashmiri hospitality three different varieties of bread were kept in front of me. I suddenly realized one of the plates contained the traditional Kashmiri bread Nan-e-Kushkh, the bread that killed Imtiyaz, Ahad Kak’s Nikka!

 

(The author is Kaeshur and teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.)