When festivals turn into reminders of unending grief

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“I feel sad during Ramzan, on Eid or any big day,” said Zubaida Malik. “I miss my family more.”

Malik has been residing in north Kashmir’s Kupwara since 2016 along with her husband and five children. She was born in Pakistan to a Kashmiri family that had migrated there and made it their home generations ago.

Moving to Kashmir was the decision of her husband, who as a young man had crossed the Line of Control to take up arms against Indian rule but never returned to fight. Women like Malik now, however, find themselves estranged in the land that they trace their roots back to.

It wasn’t just the shock of trying to assimilate into an alien culture and society, life simply isn’t the same without their extended family. These women who moved to Kashmir along with their former militant husbands — under a Government of India surrender policy — are unable to travel to Pakistan as they haven’t been provided any documents.

They remain stuck in Kashmir, a home that doesn’t accept them and in hindsight one that they never wanted. ”We have come far away, so far away from our loved ones,” said Malik, who has been living in Kashmir since 2016. “It is heartbreaking.”

Eid isn’t Eid

For Malik, Eid in Kashmir doesn’t bring the festivities like it used to when she was in Pakistan. “On the eve of Eid ul fitr, chand raat, the bazaars remain open all night,” she said, her eyes glistening with nostalgia. “Young girls, children, elders, everyone thronged the markets to buy sweets, henna, bangles and other essentials.”

It was also a day to remember loved ones who had passed away. “Those whose family members have died, buy flowers. The men go to the graveyard early in the morning on Eid and scatter the flowers on the graves of their loved ones. They recite the fatiha.”

After the ritual prayers were offered and men and women exited the masjids, Malik recalled, “they greeted each other. It didn’t matter if the person was a relative or a neighbour, whoever was in front of them, even a stranger, they would hug and greet each other with Eid Mubarak.”

Malik misses her homeland of forty-five years. “I miss the little joys we used to have. People there, whether family or strangers, care about your wellbeing. There is no such thing here,” she noted. “We can’t openly celebrate here. There is a kind of restraint in that we can’t openly express our happiness.”

Longing and remembrance

In the winter of 2018, Malik was sitting in her yard when her sister in Pakistan called to inform her that their younger sister had passed away. “I just wanted to be there, see my sister’s face one last time,” she said, her eyes welling up. “I screamed and cried but nothing happened.”

It was the same situation that she found herself in when her uncle and a cousin had died. “There is no hope if someone close dies that you could see them for the last time,” she lamented. “We can’t do anything, we can’t express ourselves. We are helpless.”

The only means of connecting with her family in Pakistan is virtual — through messaging applications — but even that is unreliable given frequent internet shutdowns. “A video call can never be satisfying but it is enough to get to know the well-being of the family,” she said. ‘‘It is like a twig to help a drowning person.”

‘Imprisoned for life’

On 14 May last year, during Ramzan, Amna received the news of her mother’s death in Pakistan through her father. “That day felt like doomsday,” she recalled.

Her mother, Amna believes, succumbed to grief. “She got sick from worrying about when I would come back and see her,” said Amna, who also doesn’t have travel documents. “I couldn’t even go there. It’s this that makes us feel helpless.”

Like Malik, Karachi-born Amna moved to Kashmir in 2009. “It was difficult in the beginning because of the different lifestyle of Kashmir,” she said. “Eid is celebrated here in a very different way. We used to celebrate this day very well there [in Pakistan]. But now we have adapted.”

In the late 2000s, communication with family was difficult — international calls to Pakistan over landlines were restricted, mobile telephony was expensive and technologically poor. “Days pass but I miss my loved ones on every occasion, be it a happy one or a sad one,” she said. “I feel like I am in a jail then I think other women like me who have come here must feel the same way.”

Amna has applied for a passport but isn’t hopeful of ever receiving one. “Every woman who has come from Pakistan wants to visit her home, to see her parents, siblings and relatives. At least, they should open the way for us. A person could see the funeral of his loved ones for the last time or can share grief with his siblings,” she sighed. “We have been imprisoned for life.”

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