mental health
Illustration by Anis Wani for The Kashmir Walla

I heard footsteps in the pitch darkness of the night. Moments before, dogs barked as if they were mocking my existence. I was motionless in bed, unable to sleep. It felt as if the angel of death was approaching. 

I could barely hear myself reciting holy verses; my legs could barely stand and my mind exploding with thoughts. I couldn’t stop screaming out—all the anger, pain, and ignorance that we, as a nation, have faced. 

I scrolled down my Twitter feed. There were updates of protests in Kashmir and hate for us from other states. Kashmiris on Twitter were silent. The government had snatched their voice when they snapped mobile phone services yet again. Two militants and a civilian were killed.

All I read otherwise was the hatred the rest of the country has for us. I read it all. The contempt for my people and religion, the clamour for waging a war against us. I was scared of being bombed or worse. I was scared to death.

I closed my eyes twenty three times. Yes, I counted. I tried to sleep but my eyeballs pressed against the eyelids so firmly that I was scared they would bleed out. In pain I cried for about three hours before eventually falling asleep. I don’t know for how long I was asleep when my mother woke me up for sahar—the predawn meal before the commence of the Muslim fast, and prayers.

She saw that I was anxious. I had woken up from a nightmare in that brief period my eyes were shut to monsters of the real world. I broke down as I told her about my nightmare. 

Shepherd on the hill

We had boarded a bus reciting the Hamud, the Muslim prayer for gratitude to god. I was with my father, headed towards the high mountain peaks that fascinate my father. I was enthusiastic as well, about the snow capped peaks and sheep grazing in the meadows below. A sight that reminded me of the fond memories of Eid in Kashmir.

I sat by the window lifting my veil against the breeze, inching towards the snow capped mountains in the distance. My father looked at me and smiled. I wore bangles that he bought for me on the journey that began on a cloudy day. 

We stopped at a point where the mighty peaks towered above us, a shepherd herded his large flock of sheep, with offwhite wool, spread out in the meadow. I jumped with joy at the sight of a little lamb. It was beautiful. I asked my father to get me one. 

The shepherd, however, had set conditions. He would sell us the lamb only if we agreed to not to recite “Hamud” on our way back, he did not want us to be grateful to God. We refused and started walking the rest of the slope to look for a better place, and lambs. 

While everyone was climbing the ever-strong and ever-tall mountains, I could barely climb some steps before falling down. I tried again. And fell again. That’s when I realised my father had already reached the peak. I screamed “Baba!” but he did not turn back. Maybe he couldn’t hear me. 

All of a sudden I felt someone grab my wrist and twist my arm. It was the shepherd. I screamed. My bangles had broken as the man clutched my wrists and moments later he pushed me down the slope. This is when my mother woke me up.

Footsteps in the dark

My mother hugged me as she led me downstairs. It was time for sahar. All along I was anxious. When I got back to my room, I cried again in fear. I managed to sleep somehow after reading the Quran.

This time around, I think I slept for three hours. It was peaceful but I woke up with a heavy head, carrying all the world’s burden. I did not want to come out of my bed, to wake up in a prison of a different kind. I missed my people; my aunt, uncle, sisters, and friends. I couldn’t visit them because of the pandemic lockdown, and I could not even speak to them. 

I relived the painful week of August last year. For six days beginning 5 August I was stuck in the hostel for doctors, without communication facilities. I did not know what was going on, I could not speak to anyone. The uncertainty was terrifying. In fact, I have been terrified since then.

But who was responsible—who was doing this? The Shepherd? Perhaps he was a metaphor to other problems.

I cried every time I prayed to God. Later that night, I heard the same terrifying noise in the pitch dark night. I was scared as I sat by the window, wanting but not able to muster the courage to see what it was. My eyes grew heavy. The footsteps had returned. 

Finding answers

I was lying in despair in my room. I could hear screams, weeps, and angry voices outside. The door opened loudly and my mother came in. Her face was bruised and bloodied. Her clothes were drenched in blood and she wept. I was stupefied.

I asked her “Mama, kyahai gow?” (Mama, what happened?). She stammered as she struggled to speak, “Asi maaren saarnei, yim maaren asi sarnei.” (They’ll kill us, they’ll kill us all). I could not do anything to stop her from weeping. I could not wipe blood from her face; instead, I tried soaking it with my veil. But it could not soak anymore. 

I looked at her again and she looked behind me, we were both scared. It was the shepherd again. In the blink of an eye, I found myself drowning in a river of blood. That is when my mother woke me up for sahar again. 

Fear has kept me from sleeping since then. I do not have the courage to close my eyes. If I close my eyes, I might never see the light again. And when it does happen, which nightmares remain for me to see?

After the azaan at dawn, I recited the Quran and sought answers from Allah. If He was there, if He knew of those who belittle Him. I was suddenly at peace, I could feel joy after a long time. That is how I felt His presence around me. He had answered me, “…surely the unjust will not be successful” (Qur’an, 6:21).

Shafaq Shahid is a student of medicine at the Government Medical College, Srinagar.

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