Go have fun’ was the only instruction. My task was to just allow these children, a group of about 50 from Jammu and Kashmir, to let their hair down and have fun, letting their imaginations have free rein. But my confidence was soon ruined.
Starting with an ice-breaking exercise that had never let me down, I was horrified to find the imaginations of these children frozen, buried under drifts of sorrow. Their grief was so great a burden on young shoulders that it had left them without the ability to imagine a happy time that the exercise required. For these children had lost their fathers, mothers, siblings or other family members to terrorist violence; most had been witness to the killings, and couldn’t remember a time when they were happy with the whole family. Joy was indeed a chore, and they had neither the skill nor the will to be happy.
Within the first few hours, several had begun to share their sorrow of the hadsa — the tragedy — in which they had lost their loved ones. Some sat close to me, too close for my city-bred comfort. I found them comparing the quantum of their individual trag-edies. I’ve never had to measure grief before. Is it quantifiable?
But they clearly need to share their stories. So I ask them to write a story, anything, from real life or fantasy, with the first line being ‘Achanak meri zindagi mein…’ That’s when I discovered a strange truth. They talk to each other in Kashmiri, but they are taught to read and write Urdu — a formal flowery and stiff form of the language — making it difficult for them to express themselves. This strange policy seems to have robbed these children of their language.
Writing the stories, almost all referring to the hadsa, was not an easy experience. But it did seem to help in thawing a little of their grief. At least to the extent that a little bit of imagination bubbled up to the surface and they were able to lend that imagination and fantasy to happiness. A small step, but significant.
Later, while addressing a teachers’ workshop in Beerwa, in the heart of Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) territory, I had to guard against ‘infiltrators’ in the group, and also because here democracy is a dirty word, considered subversive and dangerous. But the conversation soon turned into a discussion on their right to choose their leadership, as many of them proudly displayed their fingers to prove that they had actively participated in the democratic process. They were a very politically aware lot, much more than their peers elsewhere, and were surprisingly able and eager to discuss the politics of their circumstance, an awareness and maturity bequeathed by the situation.
In 1999, when I first went to work in Kashmir on a project to make the world’s longest newspaper (which really is a world record!), in which we had invited local children to participate, accompanied by teachers, we were horrified to notice that the entire length of the paper had been covered by the green crescent moon and star — the Pakistani flag. Interestingly, not one of the children had realised what had happened, so engrossed were they in their work. Yet, it was a relief to discover that none of the children had written anything even remotely subversive or political, and that almost all of the writing was soft – asking, begging for peace, and for an end to the disruptive violence.
It seems that these children have started to blindside the grief that surrounds them, no longer wanting to see more of it; they carry enough baggage, and are so on edge all the time. Once, when a group had come to Delhi to interact with schoolchildren here, there was a sudden burst of pre-Diwali crackers outside. The Delhi kids, associating this with festivity, ran to the window to see. The Kashmiri children dived for cover. For them, it was the sound of gunfire.
But, as Feisal Alkazi said at a panel discussion at the launch of my book, Weed, “Children in general and those in difficult circumstances in particular, have great resilience. And it will see them through, if they have the slightest opportunity.” In my personal experience, the young just want peace, and what’s vital is their immediate future. May be we can help in ensuring that this future lies where it should, in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
(Paro Anand is the author of No Guns At My Father’s Funeral and Weed. She has held workshops with children impacted by violence)