This is what life is like for a child of two political prisoners in Kashmir.

A few days ago, it was my 19th birthday without my parents. I am not an orphan. But the conflict in Kashmir has orphaned me.

I was born in Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir. My father, Dr. Ashiq Hussain Faktoo, spent nine years in prison before my birth. He was briefly released and then arrested within months of my birth. For 19 years now, I have not seen him under the open sky. He is one of Kashmir’s longest-serving political prisoners languishing in jail for 25 years now.

Sometimes I wanted to tear the prison down and carry my father home. I felt I was entitled to have him beside me. He was my father, but the occupation laid hands on him, so strong that I feel hesitant in calling him mine. He showed me his back once. There were scars from severe torture. When I touched them, I felt like I was reading a horror story that I was a character in. But I was his son; I used to smile and smile like a child committed to not crying. I wanted to be brave like him. He was my hero. He was my Superman and those scars knitted together formed a cape.

My father believed in a life of dignity for the people of Kashmir and chose imprisonment over slavery.

Prison became my father’s only home and my mother’s second home. They keep her in a different prison, at times they release her for a month or two and then arrest her again.

My mother married him because they shared conviction and a cause. Strange how this struggle for a free Kashmir led them into love, a struggle that only tears people apart in life and death.

My father was arrested in 1993 at Srinagar airport; along with my mother and elder brother, Muhammad, who was a few months old at the time. He was in the arms of my father; asleep – safe and sound. They took hold of my father; he took hold of the shirt our father was wearing. It was a tug of war; my father was the target. Muhammad screamed, but he lost the battle – lost his father. 

He spent six months in prison, making him the youngest political prisoner of the Kashmir conflict. Little did my brother know – he would one day be the son of one of the longest-serving political prisoners.

India accused my father of the murder of Hriday Nath Wanchoo, an activist documenting the crimes of the Indian state in Kashmir. My father denied the accusations forthrightly.

Failing to come up with any substantial evidence for his involvement in the crime – he was tortured relentlessly. He was hung upside down. At night, they used to put rats in his trousers. This was all done in front of my mother’s eyes.

All of this was done to frame a man and ruin his life – and all the lives enfolded within his. He was coerced into signing a blank paper. 

Prison guards used to take my parents to torture cells leaving behind Muhammad, the infant. The only time to date, I saw my father crying was when he told me how they saw Muhammad playing with his feces on his diaper after they returned from the torture cell.

Hung upside down, naked, bruised body, with a pistol on his head, they took his confession. Seven years later in 1999, he was released on bail and in the winter of that year, I was born.

My brother says he thought I was the lucky son, with my father being home at the time. I was – for three months. Then they arrested him again.

I don’t remember that day. I have no memories. I have no family photographs. All I carry today from that time is a void. 

My father was acquitted in July 2001; the courts recommended his immediate release, but justice is the last thing on the mind of a tyrant. He was then given life imprisonment which at first was set to 14 years, then stretched to 22 and later death. He made prison his home, my mother and us made hope our home.

In jail, my father did not cry foul. He never calls himself a victim; he is a fighter. He completed his PhD in prison. He helped drug addicts and criminals inside the prison. He has authored over 20 books behind bars – on religion, civilisation and most of all, on the criminality and lawlessness that the Indian occupation stands on.

The people of Kashmir call him the Nelson Mandela of Kashmir – I just hope he too is a free man one day in a free Kashmir, for without a free Kashmir; his own freedom remains elusive.

Love is resilience 

I look up to the love of my parents, love that survives prison and separation that feels perpetual. My parents spent two years of their 26 years of marriage together, and their loyalty to each other has never faded. My mother told me that when the policemen were electrocuting my father; they threatened her saying they would kill him so she should talk to him one final time.

My elder brother, Muhammad was six months old at the time. She must have been engrossed in his tender face, consumed by thoughts of living as a widow raising an orphan in prison. Nothing but dejection must have rounded her shoulders. The burden is heavier than any fathomable weight with no chance of hope, a life full of unforgettable misery and melancholy.

Yet, she gathered the courage to say something to make them shudder: “We fear to trade our souls to you; more than we fear you taking them.”

Bleeding, wounded and at the face of death – my father smiled.

In my father’s absence, she alone raised my elder brother and me. When both of them were absent, we lived as half-orphans, as proud but shattered children for our parents gave up their Aazadi for the much cherished Aazadi of their Kashmir; setting their conscience free. But left behind in their shadows, was a crippled sense of self. I was in a state of war; my impulsive childhood eating at my emerging shrewdness.

On my birthday, 13th December, the morning was tumultuous; the sky was gray and threatening rain. I pictured my father who I have seen incarcerated since my birth; wondering what his grown son looks like now. He would clench the bars of prison wishing he could pat my back instead.

I pictured my mother, who is in a different prison; wrestling with herself for leaving me alone. As she lives through the throes of imprisonment, she often tells me on our monthly phone calls that her greatest suffering is the thought of how I would survive the desolation of life without her warmth. They are far from me and far from each other but then this is how life is in Kashmir. The occupation has made suffering a norm.

Festivals and birthdays under occupation are like wounds that do not bleed, but they bleed hope out of you — every auspicious occasion for other children felt like a tragedy to me. I complained to God, a lot, and I found my daylight in a dark abyss eventually in doing so. He would listen.

I hated parent-teacher meetings in school, as most kids do, but my reasons were different. I did not have my parents to accompany me. I felt like an orphan even when I was not, and at times when the anguish was unbearable, I selfishly wished I was one.

The idea of my parent's existence, yet out of reach, killed my childhood. Stuck between how things were and how they should have been.

Each birthday, I would go to my parents’ room and drift asleep on the bed and not wake up for a long time; it felt like I was lying in the sand with my arms folded, eyes closed, grieving, waiting for them to come and call me their son, kiss my forehead and tell me they are finally home, tell me I have a home.

School was hard without a mother. For the first six years of my life, we had no home. There were police raids every few weeks. Sometimes she managed to escape. At times, the occupation got the better of her. 

Once, at midnight, I was sleeping with my head in the helm of my mother. I was at peace. No fireworks. No chatter. Just the sound of her heartbeat put me into a peaceful slumber. Every breath I took without the woman who gave birth to me felt voided; every smile was incomplete somehow. 

It was raining that night. The same rain that would have felt depressing without her felt so serene but then peace and occupation can never survive together. She had to run. They had come to arrest her.

Muhammad, my brother, took her through the back door. I followed, holding my tears at the brim of my eyes. I did not want to cry. I did not want to break her will; the oppression could not, but my fragility was her weakness. Muhammad got on his knees; she stepped on his shoulder. 

Her words, “Are you alright, Muhammad?” pushed the gush of tears from my eyes. How can she still be worried about us, our comfort? 

He nodded with a lump in his throat. She jumped over the wall. She had escaped. I stood there with a blank heart and mind. I was happy she was not home anymore. The air I inhaled was filled with despondency.

I remember one of the rare times my mother was at home. I had topped my class in the final exams. My teacher gave me the result sheet; she was very proud of me. She had named her newborn after me. There was an empty box on the result sheet titled ‘Parents Remarks’. I wanted to get it signed. I wanted to make my mother feel that she has nothing to be guilty of; that she has raised a good son. I wanted to hug her and tell her how I wanted to be called her miracle. I wanted to achieve everything and then ask her to look at me; look at the job she has done by raising me as a half-widow.

I held it to my chest and ran all the way to home but then the sight of the police vehicle brought me back to the world I was so used to. I saw her cuffed. I was breathing heavily. She saw me from a distance. The sun was blazing, but all the light it had could not pierce through the murk that surrounded me at that moment. 

They took her, just like that. I looked at the result. I remember shredding it to pieces. That pain made those few steps home feel like a mile-long hike to the highest hill. I did not call it home anymore. It was an orphanage – a frightening mirage. My brother and I lived there. Alone.

I remember on one of my birthdays, eight years back, my father gifted me perfume from prison. Every time I thought of using it, I feared it might finish, so I closed it and put it back. To this date, I have not put it on, out of this fear but on this birthday, I did. I want to hope. I want to believe he will be out before the perfume finishes.

As a kid, I went to meet him and to me, every meeting day was my Eid. The hugs were longer than the conversations. I guess we both feared the bleakness of the night; where he can’t come to his son and kiss me goodnight so we hugged for as long as we could and lived by it.

I once asked him to show me his prison cell. I wanted to see the walls that occupied my place in his life. He could not show me. They took his home from him and then did not even let me see the dungeon of heartache they kept him in. He used to give me his clothes — the ones that would fit me. They were not very fashionable; instead very outdated but they were his. I kept them as souvenirs of love. It fascinates me how things can mean so much to us just because of who they belong to.

Our freedom for Kashmir

I miss my mother. I miss her voice. She calls me once in forty-three-thousand-and-eight-hundred-minutes from the prison phone for one-hundred-and-twenty seconds. I know that it is just two minutes every month, but then I wish I could explain to her how every minute of waiting feels perpetual, how every second of feeling her motherhood through her voice is priceless. She used to sing this to me, a lullaby, on my birthdays.

“Miani Ahmad,

Che Zuww Mang Ham, Su ti dim-hai

Aswun Roaz Tam, Gam ch-aein nim-hai”
(My Ahmad,
If you asked for my life, I would give it to you
You stay happy; I would take all your sorrow)

My mother was a wonder-woman. She smiles at me through the bars of the prison. I call her hope in form. I remember in the barbershops, how she held my hands tightly when the men sneered at her asking about my father.

I could have been in the deepest sea – lost and astray but I trust her feeble old hands to find me and pull me out. She is a patient of arthritis; the doctor recommended that she must sleep on a soft bed, but tonight she would sleep on the cold and pitted floor of Tihar.

I picture her twisting and turning in pain with every man she loves – from her husband to her sons, so distant and helpless. Asthma never leaves her and yet she subdued her cough on so many nights so that I sleep in peace. With a broken back – worn out heart and an empty room as her fate, my mother went on to become the mother of every child of conflict.

Hope is an intriguing phenomenon when you live in a conflict zone. Pain is the norm. Funerals take place every day. Children carry coffins more often than they do schoolbags. Coffins carry children. I look at those children who were orphaned, who spend their birthdays in graveyards.

I may not have my parents beside me but I have some comfort. A comfort I cannot touch but surely feel. They are breathing. My mother is not beside me, but as she sleeps on the rugged floor of Tihar, as her back hurts, she would remember me – remember the little memories we have of the baths she gave me, the lunch boxes she prepared for me, the nights she stayed up for me – she may smile.

So, I choose to hope. We will be together someday. She will sing me a lullaby one night, but until then – she is fighting to ensure that there is nobody who can ruin that night for my family or for me - for Kashmir.

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