Shahnaz Bashir and Safwat Zargar seek out what remains of the legacy of Mugli, symbol of Kashmir’s half-mothers.
“Everything on this terrestrial globe lives…” Abdul Rashid Darzi quotes the first half of the sentence from an essay Nazir Ahmad Teli, a schoolteacher who disappeared on his way to school in 1990, dictated to him. “If he were ‘alive’ today he would have been a writer in English language.”Darzi is Nazir’s cousin, the eldest son of the latter’s only dead aunt. He is one of the four legal heirs of the desolated, locked up house in which Nazir, fondly remembered as Master Nazir, lived with his divorced mother Mugli. For 19 years, Mugli fought a lone and daring battle to trace the whereabouts of her son until she died of renal failure in 2009.
As we enter Habba Kadal in the crowded heart of Srinagar, asking people about the exact location of Mugli’s famous house, we realise that she has faded away from the memory of the neighbourhood. A local quack, practicing eastern medicine in a small alley shop, while attending to a patient, asks us why we should visit the dead and disappeared. Some neighbours try hard to remember her and enquire from each other but only produce traces of the whereabouts of her house. Some mistake the name for some other Mugli.
A decade ago the name Mugli, or famously Muagal Maas (aunty), would ring, not only across and outside Habba Kadal, but throughout Kashmir and in the internationally reported phenomenon of disappearances in political conflicts.
As we enter Habba Kadal in the crowded heart of Srinagar, asking people about the exact location of Mugli’s famous house, we realise that she has faded away from the memory of the neighbourhood.
Walking in the labyrinthine, narrow, mulberry-stained lanes and alleyways for almost an hour, we finally find the house. Mugli’s house is nestled among a dense commune of juxtaposed creaky houses in the interior of Baba Pora, Habba Kadal. It is an old mud-and-wood house that takes you back to the era of the Dogra monarchy in Kashmir. There is a small padlock on the chain-hasp over the top of a rickety, cobwebbed French door which doubles as gate of the house. Some chalk-marked scrawl on the door says: HN/62 (House No. 62) and a date 5-1-2004. Yet, under a tin awning over the gate there is another house number marked in black: H. No. 33 (1), and yet an Urdu word in the same ink says khaali (empty). A runner of dry ivy climbs up on the left side of the façade. The electricity metre enclosure box is empty; the snapped supply lines lie close to it in anticipation of a connection. Windowpanes of the room on the first floor, that used to be Mugli’s kitchen, have been replaced with unpolished wooden panels. The house is in darkness. Bundles of haphazardly stacked corrugated tin sheets hamper the entrance and the main door. The compound is fraught with overgrown hemp and wild grass. Enclosed in unpolished grey wood, the dab (balcony) on the second floor is full of darkness, heat and silence. We can’t enter the house.
Each house around Mugli’s has gone through renovation. Two Bihari labourers carry nylon sacks of cement into a house that is some ten yards away from Mugli’s. Not far away, a large house has been renovated in concrete. It is the only house in the neighbourhood that does not have the typical Kashmiri tin roof but terraces of the style one sees in the mainland. We cannot enquire further because there is no sign of any neighbours in the alley. Outside the door of Mugli’s house, it‘s only the silence and us.
In an attempt to find someone who can give us an idea about the present status of the house, we try to listen to the sounds in its surroundings. The only sound we hear is the audible news coming from a TV in a close neighbour’s house. There is a little noise of excitement in the background of the voice of BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu, who is thrilled about BJP’s Assam win. Soon after his sound bite, the newsreader’s voice resumes the further news.
We break the silence. When we knock on the door of the neighbour closest to Mugli’s house nearly half a dozen times, a young girl finally answers. Strangely, she doesn’t know anything about Mugli or her house but soon a woman joins the girl in the doorway and directs us to another house. “Approach them, they are relatives of Mugli,” she informs us, beckoning to a small concrete brick house opposite.
The elderly woman who appears in the doorway of the concrete house refers us to her husband Abdul Rashid Darzi. We are informed that he could be found in the local mosque. Darzi is president of the mosque committee. A bearded shopkeeper inside a small general provision store, close to the entrance of the mosque, tells us that Darzi has just left for home after the Asr prayers. Everybody knows him, but no one in the neighbourhood has his contact number or pretends not to have one. We even enter the mosque to find Darzi, who we have never seen before.
From the mosque, we make two rounds to his house but we can’t find him. A fair, bearded young man who has earlier helped us in finding Mugli’s house, returns from the mosque, riding on a bike and so loudly reciting verses of Quran that he oddly diverts attention of the pedestrians. A few minutes later, we find ourselves asking about the whereabouts of Darzi at a graveyard close to the mosque, close to the house where famous Kashmiri singer Vijay Malla once lived. And then a man leads us towards a person we have already seen twice when we made rounds to find Darzi. The person is none other than Darzi himself.
And then a man leads us towards a person we have already seen twice when we made rounds to find Darzi. The person is none other than Darzi himself.
He is inspecting repair work in the locally revered shrine of Syed Muhammad Kirmani. He is one of the chief custodians of the shrine. A tall, lanky, middle-aged man, Darzi is the eldest nephew of Mugli. He is some five years younger than his cousin Nazir, the disappeared. Bespectacled and sallow, Darzi has had a fresh trim to his medium-length boxed white beard. He regards us with curiosity and short serious queries. He speaks good English.
We open softly and tell him honestly that our only reason for revisit is to refresh something that gets lost in the statistics of loss. “We are here to see what happens to the places and spaces where the dead and disappeared of Kashmir once belonged to,” we say. And Darzi softens.
All the belongings of Mugli, her savings, her kitchenware, the copper, the utensils, the gas stove, the beddings, her clothes—things that are found in photographs—have been donated to the needy in accordance to her will. So, all the rooms in Mugli’s house, we imagine, are empty; the walls bare; the nails, in the trussing of the wooden ceilings, that once hung knotted plastic bags full of mysterious things Mugli put to store in them, would be bare. The relics of her memory are now scattered among people who could never ever be found. But this is what she wanted. The floors of the first storey of the house have slumped in the September 2014 deluge.
Temperamentally allergic to sympathies offered to a divorcee living with her son, Mugli had chosen to live alone in the ancestral house bequeathed to her and her sister by their parents.
“She was so bold and self-reliant that even till her death she spent from her own pocket and savings,” says Darzi. “After the disappearance of our cousin, she refused help and chose to live by herself.”
Years ago, when Darzi constructed the small concrete house he lives in with his family now, he had insisted that Mugli live with him. Temperamentally allergic to sympathies offered to a divorcee living with her son, Mugli had chosen to live alone in the ancestral house bequeathed to her and her sister by their parents. Darzi’s mother was Mugli’s only sibling who died when he was in the prime of his youth. Darzi has a younger brother, who lives in the civil lines outside the congested downtown of Kashmir, and two sisters. One of the sisters passed away a few years ago. “Yes, I and all my siblings are now the legal heirs to the ancestral house,” he reiterates.
Darzi was part of Mugli’s search party since the day Nazir disappeared. The latter addressed his mother always by her name only. As usual, on that September morning in 1990, Nazir hollered for the customary permission—everyone in Kashmir who leaves home in the morning for work or studies asks for from the eldest in the house—of his mother to leave for the government school in Buchwara Dalgate, Srinagar. “But we found later that he had not signed the attendance register at the school that day,” Darzi recalls. The early 90s were the years in which most of the custodial disappearances happened. Everyday sand-collectors in the river at Booniyar, the valley in Uri where the river enters into Pakistan, witnessed dozens of swollen, maimed, bullet-ridden, disfigured, mangled and mutilated bodies of young Kashmiri men, floating downstream. “I still vividly remember the briefs and vests of the floating dead caught in the shrubs and dense groves, growing alongside the banks of the river, at Booniyar,” Darzi winces. In the similar manner human rights activist Advocate Jaleel Andrabi’s cigarette-scorched body was found floating down Jhelum. Jaleel was assassinated for his human rights activism after an Indian army officer had kidnapped him in March 1996.
“Once I asked him to help me in an essay on earth and he began like: Everything on this terrestrial globe lives… I asked him that why it had to be ‘terrestrial globe’, and why not simply ‘earth’, but he continued believing that too much simplification in language would complicate it for use.”
But the search never ended. Once walking in Delhi’s crowded Nizamuddin area, Darzi stopped to undress the lower half of a beggar’s leg. The beggar according to Darzi resembled his cousin Nazir. In his childhood, Nazir’s right fibula was removed for osteomyelitis. The operation left two indelible pits on the calf of his right leg that became a permanent physical identity mark on Nazir’s body. “Like I’d later check each unidentifiable corpse’s leg to rule out Nazir, I almost pounced on the beggar in Delhi but it was not him,” Darzi remembers wistfully.
Nazir had a unique personality. He loved the English language and literature, and teaching. “That was his world… his English language skills were superb,” Darzi praises. “Once I asked him to help me in an essay on earth and he began like: Everything on this terrestrial globe lives… I asked him that why it had to be ‘terrestrial globe’, and why not simply ‘earth’, but he continued believing that too much simplification in language would complicate it for use.”
Nazir liked to be aloof. He was fond of Hindi-film songs on radio, he occasionally smoked hubble-bubble, he devoutly visited the shrines in Chrar-e-Sharief and Dargah Hazratbal like his mother did till her last days. He was Mugli’s world and she his. Every first day of the month, he would bring his salary and place the rolled wad of cash on his mother’s right palm in full. He never kept money with himself and as a habit would, every morning, ask Mugli for bus fare for the day. According to Darzi, Nazir was completely indifferent to the conflict situation in Kashmir and to his own person. He had to be almost forced to get a haircut or a shave. It was his mother who took care of his looks and bought him new clothes for occasions. Nazir was betrothed to a girl in the downtown but the engagement broke very soon for reasons best known only to the girl’s family. “Afterwards, he never wished to get engaged again nor was he interested in marriage.” He had a complicated relationship with the world; a temperament that, according to Darzi, might have surfaced in Nazir after the latter’s slowly becoming conscious about his mother’s divorce and what it meant to him.
He had a complicated relationship with the world; a temperament that, according to Darzi, might have surfaced in Nazir after the latter’s slowly becoming conscious about his mother’s divorce and what it meant to him.
Nazir’s father Abdul Raheem Teli still lives nearby and is married thrice with multiple other children and grandchildren. He never looked for his disappeared son. “He was addicted to polygamy, marrying and divorcing,” Darzi scorns Teli. But Teli was seen last at the funeral of Mugli.
Legally, Nazir is NOT DEAD. Deoband School issued a decree in favour of Darzi’s enquiry about ‘funeral rites for a disappeared’ and allowed him to organize fateh (prayer for the dead). “But Muagal Maas grievously criticised and rejected it,” Darzi recounts acquiescingly. “She believed Nazir is alive and died hoping so.” It was only after Mugli’s death that Nazir’s funeral prayers in absentia were held.
No one knows what happened to Nazir that September morning when he was on his way to school. The only thing people know is that among some estimated 8000 disappearances that occurred in the last twenty-five years of turbulence in Kashmir, he is one in the four-figure number. “The presence of bunkers in Habba Kadal in 90s was so dense that in half-a-kilometre stretch from Baba Pora to the main road of Chotta Bazar one had to pass by precisely thirteen bunkers,” Darzi vividly remembers.
No one knows what happened to Nazir that September morning when he was on his way to school. The only thing people know is that among some estimated 8000 disappearances that occurred in the last twenty-five years of turbulence in Kashmir, he is one in the four-figure number.
Nazir is a “disappeared” now; Mugli is dead, and the house is locked up. Darzi says that the keys of the house are with his younger brother who lives in the civil lines. But it sounds illogical to us. Why should the keys not be with him who lives just diagonally opposite the house? Also, there are no clear answers that why the legal heirs have not touched the house in the last six years after Mugli’s death? Why is it closed up in the same way it would be seven years ago?
Mugli was always on the forefront of sit-ins and protests for her son and in solidarity with all the relatives of the disappeared in Kashmir. She would always be seen in public parks, pressers and courts; many journalists thronged the old house in Baba Pora. She figured in documentary films. Though sparsely, her terminal illness was reported and known in the press and political circles of Kashmir. But not a single separatist leader attended her funeral. “I didn’t see anyone of the Hurriyat there,” Darzi confirms. No condolences were heard of from anyone except informal social media mourning by a section of youths and journalists for a day. The only name Darzi could remember was Parveena Ahangar, the chairperson of Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP) and Mugli’s companion in grief.
In conventional news reporting, facts and figures grow on daily basis and tragedies get normalised. But it is only in an immersive look that each figure and fact of tragedy in Kashmir glowers with questions. Sadly, there are no answers.