Had it not been for the 51 days of curfew, Hadi would have been going to his preparatory school. His mother, Uzra, tells him he is the guy who can get a ‘100’ in school. But Hadi’s hero is Nobita, the boy who gets zero, in the cartoon series Doraemon. What is worrying Uzra more is her four-year-old’s obsession with cartoons – which is understandable – and with news – which is not – is exposing him to words and images that are too fraught for him to understand.
In Kashmir’s unrest, children have participated as protestors, stone pelters, bystanders. And as children. Stuck for over 50 days inside homes since curfew was clamped all over the Valley in the aftermath of the protests triggered by the death of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in an encounter on July 8.
Parents are dusting out their carrom boards or buying new ones with half a heart in the game. Mohammad Hayat, a government servant and a resident of Srinagar’s Nawabazaar area, plays with his daughter Fatima, 5, who sits across the carrom board, taking aim. For a few minutes, the carrom men fly all over till the sound of gunfire is heard at a distance. “Want to go to school tomorrow,?” he quickly asks to distract her. She looks back solemnly and says: “No. Tomorrow, too, is curfew.” Hayat then tells her the white lie parents in the Nawabazaar area (one of the localities in Srinagar with active stone stone-pelters since the 1980s) told their younger children in the ’80s. It will soon be over.
In Nawabazaar, the first casualty of police firing in the late ‘80s was a child – a seven-year-old, the neighbourhood darling whom everyone called Valve-Tube. “He was tiny for his age,” explains Hayat. “We remember Valve-Tube and the constable who killed him. Within a few years, he was DSP,” says Bilal, a neighbour who drops by. What is Fatima thinking when she hears stories such as these? Is Fatima hearing about Valve-Tube for the first time? Will it be a permanent memory?
“From us, Fatima, gets to hear the usual fairy tales, the King and the Queen, The Thirsty Crow, et al. Just that because of the curfew, we are repeating them with variations each time,” says her father with a laugh. “How do I explain Kashmir to a five-year-old? What will it mean to her if I talk about youth uprisings or pellet guns? I don’t put ideas in her head…. Kashmir’s history is evolving…. I don’t want her to grow up and say that I told her lies.”
Aidah, 8, the daughter of Sameera, a teacher, wanted to know why they kept the lights switched off for some weeks. “It was too complicated to explain it as an act of resistance, that we were doing a blackout on a Hurriyat call. This is her first curfew,” she says matter-of-factly as if explaining a rite of passage. “I said innocents have died. So we have to maintain Black Days,” adds Sameera.
The long stretch of curfew has meant that words like ‘blackout’ and ‘pellet guns’ have entered Aidah’s vocabulary through casual conversations. The crackdown by security forces on protesters have left hundreds with serious pellet injuries.
“She saw a dog passing with a spot in his eye. She was convinced he has been shot with a pellet gun,” says her mother wryly.
But news seeps in. To what extent can a parent monitor or block out stuff with Scrabble, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, she asks ironically. “They pick up words…. Difficult to know what they know or don’t know. It’s in the air. Once Aidah and her cousin stomped down the staircase after being frustrated at being cooped up in their rooms, saying: ‘Hum kya chahtey…’ just because I had refused them biscuits!”
Youtube videos of children in south Kashmir marching with toy guns in the garden have surfaced. Uzra says she has seen her neighbour’s children doing the same. Besides his new game of plastic blocks, Hadi, her son, has had another acquisition. A new habit. “He had gone out for Eid where he had his first experience of being f tear-gassed. Since then, if he does something naughty, to pass the buck, he says Indian Dog Police did it.”
General knowledge quizzes are also an option to pass time during the curfew, says Sameera. But sometimes the questions her daughter asks stump her. “Why can’t Geelani be the Father of the Nation,?” Aidah asked me one day. So I said for school, there are certain answers to certain questions. When you grow up you will know the real answer to things.”
Curfew has also been a gender-bender for Moazam, Sameera’s nephew. Holed up in his room, he sometimes sits with his sisters and strings beads. “Aidah is the boss. She doesn’t play cricket, so no cricket for Moazam. I wouldn’t have allowed it anyway. No jumping or running around. If there are bruises or injuries how do I access medical help amid this curfew?”
Saaliq, 9, has a solution. A student at one of the community schools that have sprung up in Srinagar to give free coaching to students, he is going to be a doctor, he says. Last week he had wanted to be God and lift the curfew.
“That might take a bit of work,” one adds.
“You are right,” he says. “I am going to be a doctor. I think we need many of them.”