FEATURE: THE TIMES OF INDIA/THE REFUGEE

                                                           The Refugee






Conditioned as I was by city mores, I tried not to stare. But she was truly beautiful, dirty pheran and dishevelled hair notwithstanding. Those hazel eyes, aquiline nose and chiselled lips took me back in time to another state where scarlet apricots dried on black boulders and mustard fields gleamed besides the roaring Indus.

We were in the second class ladies compartment at Mumbai’s VT station. She had a small girl standing shyly next to her. Within minutes, the compartment filed and commuters were trying to engage her in conversation. A difficult task, given that her Kashmiri-laced Hindi was rudimentary and that the Mumbaikar’s Hindi was, well, Mumbai Hindi.

I kept a studied silence. As someone with an army background, I knew more about the Kashmir problem than most in the compartment. I had observed both sides of that coin from hell.

The women around us were peppering her with queries. Her name was Abida and she was from a hamlet in Sopore, the apple bowl of that state. Her shauhar had disappeared across the border four months ago and she had come to the plains with a band of refugees. They lived in the pipes near Mahim station. This last bit was clear only to me. Mystified, the other women kept repeating their queries.

Which was when I stepped in. Abida’s eyes lit up when I told her I knew Kashmir well. It was as if the floodgates broke open with the force of her emotions. She talked of her fields, the school where her father used to teach, her sisters and brother. She told of her husband’s decision to take up arms against the fauj, how she had pleaded with him not to, but in vain. With his going, the family structure had collapsed. Hounded by the militants as well as the authorities, Abida and some relatives left Kashmir.

She talked of life in Mumbai, an iron pipe for a dwelling, a life of deprivation, poverty and worse. “I was not like this, bibi” she said with fierce intensity, “I had a maqsad for living. I was happy.”

I asked her what she did now. “No one gives us jobs,” she said “I don’t want to beg. Every morning, I travel across town looking for a job, any respectable job. The other kind, I keep getting offers.”

Some of our conversation had got through to our fellow commuters. Space was made for the little girl, someone produced fruit. The girl looked up at her mother for approval before taking the fruit. Yet another woman took out some money from her purse. It was refused with gentle dignity.

The woman sitting next to me wrote down a Muslim organisation’s address for Abida. Then, it was my station and I got up. She nodded gravely and the little girl flashed a smile.

I don’t know if Abida did go to the organisation. For the rest of my stay in Mumbai, I looked out for her but did not see her. Not around VT, not around Mahim. But that beautiful face in which privation had etched some fine lines, that air of solemn dignity and, above all, that air of hopelessness has stayed with me.




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