SHAISTA, LIKE so many children of this troubled valley, has seen blood at close quarters, been traumatised by the violence and has learnt to live with death and not knowing what tomorrow will bring.
Her elder brother Waseem and her grandmother were both victims of a terrorist attack on their village. Both died of bullet wounds. Shaista was only four then but still vividly remembers that time.
That, and the fact that her father was not around. "My father used to be away from home most of the time. I don't know where he would go to, I used to wonder why but never found out. He was never home," says Shaista.
One day he went away and never returned. Teenaged Fayaz, a neighbour, says people believe he either went over to "the other side" or that he will surface some day as a faceless name on a list of those presumed dead.
Shaista still hopes he will return, she would like to show him her skills with the stick, support her dreams. "If my father was there, maybe I would stand a better chance at moving elsewhere and pursuing hockey more seriously," she says. At this point though, looking around, it looks like she has an insurmountable challenge ahead.
And then her youngest brother pipes up. "Centre pe baaji ko koi nahin hara sakta (no one can get past my sister at the centre)," chirrups Faisal, Shaista's youngest brother, barely out of toddlerhood. Faisal, who already dreams of playing hockey too, clutches his sister proudly and mutters again with undoubted pride, "No one can take the ball away from her."
As you go around Sopore district, you see the effect of militancy everywhere. There are signs of devastation everywhere, few signs of development. The "playground" that is officially for the use of the area's children is really a pasture for cows. The battered metal post with the legend, "Sopore Stadium", is an apology for a sign.
On one of the days in December last year, the children said they had been asked not to come to the ground the next day - as "officials were coming". It was later discovered that those unnamed "officials" had come a day earlier. Apparently, some officials did not want any uncensored stories and tried to ensure the children stayed away.
But there were many. There are countless others like Shaista and Faisal. Children who have lost fathers, brothers to terror and are now mainly dependent on the miniscule earnings of the females of the family, most of who work as labourers.
Shaista, close to marriageable age (many girls in the area are betrothed by the age of 14-15) is very lucky that she has in that they have been allowed to hold on to her version of childhood and her dreams of sporting glory. For most others, childhood was never much of an option. They had to just get on with the business of living.
Two bodies, same dream
Srinagar, unlike Sopore (which is two hours from the summer capital, largely rural and "embedded" in the Valley) is quite developed, administratively and structurally. But again, like Sopore and its sister cities in this ravaged dale, it is a town coming to ragged grips with a horrific past, one that is as yet not quite history.
In Srinagar, Saba Akhtar, like Shaista, is 15 and in love with sport, another young lady who sees it both as a means to a different life and a passport to fame. Saba and Shaista cannot come from more different backgrounds, yet, in other ways, they are kindred spirits.
Saba's parents are staunchly middleclass. Father Mohd Akhtar Rah owns a shoe-shop while mother Bilkis is a supervisor with the local branch of an electronics multinational. Saba is in Class X at Srinagar's Linton Hall School and more pertinently, is captain of both the school and district women's rugby team.
What was rugby, an intensely physical contact sport, doing in a region that was once free spirited but had, over time, become a bastion of conservatism? And that too, what was it doing being played by women?
Well, it is - and it is increasingly finding favour among its adherents and those that matter to them. Akhtar Rah, asked how he felt about seeing his daughter (headscarf well in place through her practice, incidentally) play a contact sport in mixed company (young men and women were facing each other), his reply was unexpected, one that perhaps could signal a changing mindset in the Valley.
Akhtar, the father of three daughters, is not only very proud of his eldest's sporting ambitions, he says he will do everything to help her execute her plans. "I am supporting her in every possible way," he says straightaway.
"The fact that people say that girls should be married by a certain age holds no water with me. I want her to study, I want her to make it in the career of her choice and I want her to live her dreams," he adds.
Interestingly, for Akhtar Rah, the fact that he has no son doesn't matter. My daughters are my sons and I am proud of them," he states unequivocally, adding that they are up for any challenge.
The one challenge that Saba, at the peak of her form and fitness, will face this year is a dragon familiar to 15-year-olds across the country - the Class X Board exams. "I must find a balance between my studies and my game," she says worriedly. She can't give up the former and she won't give up the latter. So she starts her day early and after the first
, moves onto breakfast, tutorials and invariably, rugby practice.
Asked about Saba and her dreams of "playing for India", coach Javed Ahmad, credited with introducing this rather unusual game (for Indians) in the Valley, heaps high praise on the teenager. "Saba is a gem at touchplay," he says. "She is a thinker and what makes her stand apart is her strategising on the fly… she sets up and finishes games beautifully."
Meanwhile, in underdeveloped Sopore, the children are making a start. Their dreams are more basic, less ambitious. They take care of their section of the playground they practice in, they work at levelling the field, make sure it is not trespassed upon.
What they lack, of course, is organised development. There are apparently Kashmir sports council officials appointed for the area but there is no sign of them, no training centre of any sort, no evidence of any government sports plan being executed.
But here and in other parts of the Valley, with help or without it, the children play on. From cricket to wrestling, from badminton to rugby, everywhere in the state, through Srinagar and Sopore, Baramullah and Anantnag and Gulmarg, are a people passionately involved in sport and children looking to pursue that passion seriously.
This is the first of a special four-part series about sport in Kashmir, its history and development, the infrastructure and the lack of it, and mostly, about its children. For most of us, this state has come to mean the valley of death; for some of its people though, it is now also a valley of hope.