FOR 21-YEAR-OLD HAYAT, ONE OF THE MANY YOUNG BOYS IN KASHMIR BLINDED BY THE ‘NON-LETHAL’ PELLETS, THE WORLD IS DARKER NOW – AND SOMEHOW CLEARER
His eyes, unable to focus at the present and palpable, wandered beyond the curtains and walls of his room and rested at some faraway place inaccessible to my eyes. Every time he turned to look in my direction, his gaze passed right through me, as if I myself were some place else, reminding me that though we are in the same room, the distance between us was insurmountable. I could see him with his fuzzy beard and blank eyes, and he, with those eyes wide open, could not. I was just another voice in the hazy glow of his blindness.
“Who is it,” he asked, stretched out on the carpet, his aunt dropping drops into his eyes from a little plastic bottle. Our settling down stirred the stillness of the room. “Who has come?”
Hayat Ashraf Dar, 21, had been expecting us and gave us directions to find the aunt’s house in Bemina where he had been staying over that week. “Turn right from the yellow mosque,” he said to his friend, Yasin, who brought me along on his bike, “and then go straight and take a left.” Through a labyrinth of massive houses, most of them under-construction, and past mounds of bricks, rocks and sand, we had finally found the house.
“It is me,” Yasin replied. “And there is the journalist too.”
The afternoon sun streamed in through the windows to illuminate everything in the room: his makeshift bedding, the pattern on the carpet, his cousin (the one who brought us in, with a thick silver chain around his neck) reluctantly turning the pages of his biology notebook, a kindle lying here, a cellphone there, and a young cousin sister hanging around near the door, looking at him.
But Hayat couldn’t see any of this. In the middle of the day, Hayat stared into an unending night. For three months now, everything has been dark. No sunrise, No sunset. No walking into the garden; in fact, no garden itself. The world has been wiped out from in front of his eyes.
Hayat and Yasin were already talking and the conversation wandered through news channels, through an ongoing encounter between militants and Indian soldiers on the border, through another encounter in the outskirts of Srinagar and through half a dozen other news events that I was oblivious to.
“I have someone read to me,” said Hayat. “Three newspapers every morning and then I watch the news and debates on TV.” He did say watch. “I really wanted to read Afzal Guru’s book, so a friend read it out to me. I want to keep track of what is happening in Kashmir.”
Hayat is one of the numerous young boys in Kashmir who have been blinded by the ‘non-lethal’ pellets that the government forces and police shoots at the people during the anti-India protests and demonstrations that happen every other week across Kashmir’s cities, towns and villages. Most of the victims have lost one eye, but Hayat is one of the few who have lost both. And, like everyone else he is trying to restore his lost sight while, at the same time, adjusting to a darker world.
The last thing Hayat saw was a policeman fifty meters away, with his gun pointed straight at him. That moment bisected his life. Before, there were colors and streets, his favorite Wayne Rooney blazing through the TV screen with the ball at his feet; there were books with their large and small typefaces, and now there is darkness. Earlier he was an economics student wanting to go to a business school and now he is a young man blinded into sitting inside a room, chilly on a sunny day.
Hayat left Kashmir in class V and spent the last 10 years in Delhi, where his family has a flourishing handicraft business. Till class IX or X, he says, he studied like the rest of his classmates till he suddenly began to feel that he was a Kashmiri. “I felt that my relationship with India was much more complicated than that of my classmates,” he said.
The feeling of that difficult relationship was strengthened by his visits back home every summer for two months. In those months that passed too quickly he would rekindle old friendships and make new friends, and walking through the labyrinthine lanes of Srinagar’s downtown, Hayat picked up his experience of Kashmir’s politics. In the Nowhatta neighborhood of downtown where he lives in, politics is essential to life, and the heart of the resistance politics in Srinagar beats in Nowhatta’s narrow lanes, bylanes and its mostly stone, cartridge and blood littered Chowk.
“Then 2008 happened, and I saw people getting shot and dying on the streets of Srinagar. People I knew, I saw them bleeding on streets,” said Hayat. “I could never be the same. Something changed in me.”
In the amnesic bustle of the metropolis, he felt like a stranger.
“I began to assert my identity to save myself from being assimilated,” he said. “Otherwise, I thought, I would be lost.”
For a 21-year-old blinded boy, Hayat is stern, impassive, and refuses to let his face contort into a grimace even while his aunt sobs recounting the story of his bloodied body and multiple surgeries, and of the family’s misfortune.
It was in his neighborhood, on the 14th of June this year, a lane away from his uncle’s house where he was going, that he was shot.
Hayat was returning home from a religious gathering and saw police shelling their way out of the lane. He remembers the smoke that was everywhere.
“A policeman was taking video on a Handy-cam and was shouting the vilest of abuses and making vulgar gestures,” Hayat remembered. “I shouted at him if he was not a Kashmiri Muslim too, and did he not fear God even in this month of Ramadan. I asked him if he never thought he will have to face God.”
Hayat remembers standing on a black cast iron manhole lid, with no one between him and the policeman, and smoke still in the air.
“He pointed his gun straight at me but I thought he was just scaring me. I never thought he would shoot,” he said.
Hayat had more than 20 pellets in his upper body, seven of them making an arc around his heart, and two in his face: one in each eye.
“It was like one of those scenes from Tom and Jerry, where they are hit so impossibly hard that they see stars. I literally saw hundreds of stars in a flash, and then it all went dark and I was stranded.”
Some people held him by his arms and started walking him away. “What has happened to my eyes? What has happened to my eyes?” he kept shouting. His eyes were bleeding and fluid was oozing out of them.
“His face was all bloodied, so was his shirt. I washed it with my own hands,” his aunt recounted, sobbing.
His family rushed him to one hospital from where they were immediately referred to another and then another in Delhi.
In her recounting, his aunt constantly addressed Hayat in the past tense. “He was my first son,” she said. “I raised him up for the first 10 years when his mother and father were in Delhi. He was such a good boy. Maybe we were not lucky enough to have such a person in our lives.”
All this while Hayat ate slices of an apple, and looked in the direction of his aunt’s voice. “Don’t cry,” he asked her, sighing himself, but without any trace of sentimentality. Hayat was very much there, in the present tense; he was as present as anyone in the room. “It is a test from God and nothing will come out of crying. Inshallah God will restore my sight,” he said.
“I accept this blindness as God’s will,” Hayat said. “There is no other way. Or I will get depressed. And depression can be fatal, not only for me but for my relatives and friends too.”
“And if I become depressed and broken, wouldn’t they, who shot me, succeed. Didn’t they want to make an example out of me and scare the people around me from resisting the oppression.”
Hayat doesn’t look depressed, or he hides it extremely well. His voice is sharp and his shoulders erect. Maybe it is the hope of regaining sight again soon, the belief that the darkness is only temporary, and that the doctors will be able to heal him, and more than the doctors, his firm belief that Allah will not forsake him.
“God can never do injustice,” he said. “And I am not an isolated case, an individual story. I am a dot in a pattern of oppression. Justice will be the end of that oppression. And the return of my vision”.
In these months of darkness, Hayat said, things had actually become clearer, and the world had, as if, been stripped of its distractions.
“We are in a state of war; I know that now more than ever. It is just that it is a camouflaged war, and the façade of normalcy is another front of it,” he said. “I have been killed, without leaving my dead body behind.”
His right eye, which was operated thrice in the first two weeks of his injury, is now completely blinded to light, and there is a slight glow on the left one.
For four days and four nights after the first surgery, he did not sleep a wink. He was awake in darkness and in such pain, as he had never known before.
“The darkness was nothing compared to the pain. We sometimes just say the word excruciating, that pain was truly excruciating,” says Hayat. “But maybe I wouldn’t have felt that pain so much if I could see something. Maybe darkness added to the pain.”
The Intraocular pressure for his right eye, which for a normal eye is 10-20, was 50. An ophthalmologist in Srinagar said that it must have been pain from another world.
His aunt brought tea and homemade bread, and fed him somewhat like a child; he opened his mouth and waited uncertainly for an invisible piece of food in an invisible hand.
Things, useful things – books, tables, chairs, cups – have suddenly become obstacles, and someone’s hand or shoulder is always needed to negotiate hundreds of such obstacles in a blind journey, for example, to the invisible bathroom.
“I held on to my piss for 6 hours at times,” said Hayat. “Out of spite. I thought, let it be. It would just kill me to take along another person, to be so dependent suddenly that I couldn’t even piss by myself.”
It was the dependence on others or rather the loss of his individual freedom that torments Hayat the most.
“To have to be bathed by your brother, suddenly, kills you from inside. For days together in Delhi’s summer, I would refuse to be bathed.”
Three months after being shot in his eyes, the pain had subsided but the darkness refused to dispel.
Hayat pointed to his left eye, to a little bump just above the Iris. “That is the pellet,” he said. “The pellet is slowly coming out itself, the bump wasn’t there before,” his aunt added, walking across the room and bringing down a small glass bottle from a shelf.
“Here,” she said, handing me the bottle. “I brought this from Delhi”
A little black ball lay at the bottom of the bottle; it is like the ball bearings in a cycle wheel, only that it is smaller. “They removed this from his right eye.”
The doctors in Delhi, she said, had no idea what was in his eyes. “‘What are they shooting the boys in Kashmir with,’ he kept asking us? That night we scratched with our nails a dozen pellets out of his arms and legs, she says, and when we showed the doctor, he was horrified.”
A pellet cartridge holds around 500 little iron balls in it, a senior police officer says, and when shot, they scatter in the air hitting anyone in the range. The Jammu Kashmir Police claim that the pellet gun is a non-lethal weapon and say that it is very useful in controlling crowds without causing much damage.
According to an ophthalmologist at the SMHS hospital, they have already seen more than 300 young boys with pellets in their eyes. “And most avoid coming here if they can, because of the spies that police has posted here,” the ophthalmologist said. “They keep a check on our registers and see who has pellet injuries, and then the police comes and arrests them.”
Most of the boys with pellets buried in their eyes either go to, or are anyways referred to, Amritsar’s specialty eye hospitals in the hope of getting better treatment, and away from an added worry of the threat of an arrest.
Hayat has consulted more than half a dozen doctors by now and each one has different opinions: one said there was hope, the other said there was absolutely no hope, another said let’s wait and watch.
“I take the good things they say and throw the bad things away in the dustbin. That is how I do it,” Hayat said, smiling, knowing that it sounds quite naive.
There are phases, he said, or even a phase everyday when one asks oneself: what happened, how did I get here? His days, he says, are like nights. “Sometimes I just want to cry, In fact I did cry at times.”
Hayat regularly answers his questions and doubts, and his answers, he said, satisfy him. “Or my voice wouldn’t have had this tone, and my shoulders would have dropped. I would have been just another victim with my head in my lap,” he says.
As we got up to leave, Hayat hugged his friend and then shook hands with me and hugged me too, and the strap of my haversack lightly slapped against his face.
“I can see you,” he says. “You are wearing a bag, I can see the strap,” he says, touching it.
“You are wearing a bag too,” he turns in Yasin’s direction. “I can still make out things, you see.”
“No,” Yasin says. “No bag today.”
“But he is wearing one,” Hayat says with a laughing voice, turning towards where I was standing a moment ago.
(A shorter version of this piece appeared in the India Ink Blog, New York Times. Feedback firstname.lastname@example.org)