F is for Fish. F is for Freedom

Fouziya Tehzeeb

Every year, while men are in the Eid-gah offering prayers, I apply heena on the toes of the cow. Tied to the willow tree, she munches on the grass one last time. The act of preparing it for sacred sacrifice is accompanied by a bit of uneasiness in my heart. From the corner of my eye, I look at her bulging eye with thick long eyelashes. Is she at the verge of tears? I keep wondering. Is this how she appears every day and I just fail to notice? I comfort myself.

When the men in the family return, they are accompanied by a local butcher. While they are busy with the ritual sacrifice, I prepare the samovar filled with sweet cinnamon kehwa; kulcha with poppy seeds on top are complimentary. My brother-in-law, Bilal takes the responsibility to serve the kehwa to the guests and to keep it boiling continuously inside the samovar. He blows on the charcoal, adds new glowing red charcoal pieces, and by the end of it, his short red hair is covered in specks of white and grey ash.

Unlike this butcher who is welcomed in our homes, there are other kinds of butchers in Kashmir that nobody wants in their homes. They come, inflict pain and leave behind the memories which linger on forever. Often, they behave as actual butchers; they chop human bodies into pieces, for real. Recently, the human body parts were found in the Kehmil river, not far from my home. They were impossible to identify when one of the dismembered right hand was found under a boulder and his name was found engraved on top of it. It gave me goose-bumps and I wondered if this was the reason for older people to engrave their name on top of their hand and forearm. May Allah protect us all!

On Eid-ul-Adha, a couple of families in my village who can afford it, prefer to cook fish as meat gets piled up. The rest of the families cook a big rooster and wait for the sacrificial meat wrapped in paper to be delivered to their homes. This wait for one year spanned across four seasons was never felt as deeply as it did this time. Sometimes, people spend every minute of their lives waiting for one moment and somehow, in the process, they lose the sight of what they had been waiting for all along. I am waiting for Majid to return home. This beleaguered hope is circling around me, like day and night.

Today, I have to cook 25 kilograms of fish. Day before yesterday, it was raining heavily and I travelled down South to Sopore, seventy-five kms away from here. After negotiating with two fishermen back and forth over the Sopore Jehlum Gaad, one finally offered eleven kgs and another, fourteen. They dumped the fish submerged in blood -red water in my big plastic sack. Upon reaching home, I soaked the small fish in cold water again in a wide mouthed cauldron. They rose up to the top, greyish black in colour and their eyes bulging out, they were looking at me; fifteen eyes at one time and some sneaking eyes underneath them, waiting to listen to me with great love. Did they sense the fear in my body? I could. Could they see how much I have endured these last six months? I can see. Suddenly I was hit by a wave of painful memories and I broke down holding the black cold cauldron with both my hands. In that moment, the fish were the witness to my pain. Next morning, I popped out those eyes.

It took me hours to clean the fish at the well while my sister-in-law poured cold water over them. I pulled out the internal organs and all the kids gathered around waiting for the balloon-swim bladder. The older kids were picking up the balloon from the pile filled with blood; rough gills, sticky eyeballs, pouty lips, yellow-green intestines, fat lumps, transparent scales and small fins. My pile of issues intensified too. I tried to cover up my stormy inner self with a rough outer display.

The white balloon has two empty sacs conjoined together like Majid’s heart and mine, only that ours is filled with love. One after the other, the kids thumped on the balloons. They burst with low sound while some of the balloons burst silently. All the kids looked surprised and within seconds they all broke into a loud laughter.

My heart is like those balloons, if thumped, it will make no sound either. The storm has spiraled down leaving behind a gloomy soul.

Silence can be surprising for people in Kashmir. Not hearing loud gunshots for a while makes everyone wonder if things are okay. The sense of feeling okay in the body is experienced by the chaos outside. Each body part feels alive during the protests these days. Blood gushes high inside. Space for breath is crunched down and shouts for ‘Azadi’ reach straight to the lungs. Arms swing, hands clap and legs don’t stop.

The body of the fish lay ripped apart into two parts now. The head, the upper and lower belly and the tail. Later in the night, I stayed up to deep fry the fish on the mud stove. For the first time, nobody in our home is looking forward to the feast.

Today, I have no time to see my heena-ed cow, make kehwa, meet or greet. I need to check the list of stuff for the feast. Deep brown fried fish/Boiled Haakh-Collard Greens/Boiled Mujje-Radish/Mustard Oil/Garlic/Kashmiri red chili powder, turmeric, black cardamoms, salt/little water.

The leftover mustard oil from last night will not burn my eyes. After stir frying the vegetables with spices in the copper pot (deekche), a layer of vegetables and a layer of fish pieces, another layer of vegetables, and finally the fish is placed. Water is added small but in right amount to cook the whole meal to make the fish juicy but none to be left at the end. My mother once told me that water is not good for cooked fish as it brings them back alive. It doesn’t make sense but I would dread seeing fish floating in ras/curry. That’s a sign of a bad Kashmiri fish recipe. Twenty-five years later, I saw Bengali fish in a yellow mustard curry.

The taxi came to a halt in front of a black high walled gate – Muqam Army Camp written in red. I adjusted my white cotton pheran with green and pink flowers. I untied my hijab and tied it again at the back of my head leaving the black hair above my ears visible and the braid swinging. Bilal pulled down two big copper pots.

The Muqam Army camp is nestled at the foothills of Shamsabari mountain range. It’s located in the village named Muqam. Muqam/maqam in Urdu means the destination or a site, this is the last muqam I pray Allah for me to land at. For now, he has chosen this destination for me. It was after months of searching that we came to know that Majid was arrested and held captive at this very camp.

“What is your name and who are you meeting?” asked the soldier from inside of the gate- he had black eyes and light brown skin, speaking in Kashmiri. I could sense the anger on his long face.

“I am Saima and I am here to meet my husband, Majid”.

He opened the gate, took out his long register, with year 1992 marked on it. Deep inside, I made a silent prayer. Ya Allah! Don’t repeat a year like this in my life. But that’s not how life works. He wrote my details and next to it, I put my right thumbprint.

I studied in a local primary government school till the 3rd standard. I can only recognise alphabets and numbers. F is for Fish. F is for Freedom, too. Beyond this, my vocabulary fails. Except, Majid having introduced me to the world of poetry; love for the Beloved, and love for him and what he loves. I love him and he loves his country.

As part of his work, he was meeting new people from different parts of Kashmir and from the other side of the border. He used to guide them in the Shamsbari forest under the moonlight, lift the injured on mountain range, dress their wounds and escort them to their destination. They filled him with stories about their families, towns and favourite poets. Whenever he would come home, he would narrate those stories to me. I would travel in those stories whirling around like my fingerprints.

So, this is my third official Mulaqaat (meeting). Mulaqaatas kar chu gasun? (When are you going for the tryst?) The question I would hear often from everyone in the village.  In every mulaqaat, a family member or a relative who finds it difficult to hold on to emotions is dragged along. These meet-ups are no magic potion to wipe off the pain, how can a meeting with a beloved leave you with no yearning? Instead, it brings more pain.

Since its Eid today we all decided to take my younger sister-in-law’s first born newly arrived baby girl to meet Majid, her elder maternal uncle. Perhaps, this is the first and last time she would see him.

The soldier signaled to his companion, he had a dark brown complexion, tall, and yes, Indian, to accompany us to Barrack 11. Local men from the surrounding villages collect timber from the forest, some build barracks and huts and some work on the fence. There are others who are forced into menial labour work, including children. Ten days back, Majid had informed a labourer from our village to bring 25kgs of cooked fish.

During the day time, the prisoners are kept in small wooden barracks. The door remains shut and the light sweeps in through a single window. At night, they take them somewhere else, darker. The soldier unlocked the door.

The sun rays shone on Majid’s silhouette. He was there, sitting with his arms crossed and hands chained, resting in his lap, and legs folded with feet chained, too. He was wearing beige coloured kurta-pyjama. His pyjama was covering his thighs and knees, leaving the shins exposed. The weight of those rusted chains felt heavier than our copper pots. After wishing him Eid Mubarak, Bilal placed the two pots in the left corner of the room one by one.

“Aren’t we a bit late for this grand feast?” said Majid with a hint of sarcasm.

“Did they beat you up again?” I asked, feeling guilty inside, but he could feel the love.

Finally, after three days of struggle with this feast, it reached the master. Majid was fighting for freedom and now for his freedom, these fish were paying the price.

I walked slowly on broken wooden planks underneath and placed Madina in his arms, resting on his elbows. His eyes were focused on her, seeing his niece for the first time in jail. He was trying to forget his pain. My eyes were focused on him. Shortly, the hook of the chain pierced her soft skin and she began to cry. I will narrate this story when she would be ready to receive the secret nineteen years later. The circle of life should never end.

Bilal handed me a plate and a spoon signaling me to place fish pieces for him on the plate before the copper pots would be taken away.

“How are the kids doing?” Majid asked.

I was stirring the layer of blood orange mustard oil and lifted the greens which had turned black-greenish, the same colour as Majid’s shin. The white radishes had turned blood orange too.

Majid repeated his question and then, with his bald head hanging down, he said, “The Commanding Officer wants 150 pashmina shawls next week.”

I stopped. My thoughts are running wild and I was running with them too, wildly. Scattered all over the place, lost in my own wilderness. Unlocking one dark empty room and running towards another. His words were ringing in my ears and along with his words, the Persian poem that he read to me once about the silence in Tehran when it came under attack by the Mongols.

My slumbering city! Where is the spirit of your spring?

Where are your crowds, your passion, and your zeal?

The bitter tears of fall creep through veins in every leaf;

Where is your breath of sunrise, the scent of your green?

The enemy fields its troops in your markets and streets;

Where is the clamour of your riders and your horse’s screams?

I was exhausted. All I wanted to do was to stop running. But at least, I could run, Majid couldn’t. This thought grounded me.

“Is the CO going to wrap your wounds with the Pashmina shawls?” I smiled.


Fouziya Tehzeeb is an International Relations graduate. She is an independent researcher working on borderlands and ethnic identity in Kashmir.

More Stories
Cover Art Explainer