Holding a pen in one hand and a ledger in another, Tabassum Guru is closely looking at the contents of the page spread on the counter behind a glass-framed cabin in the waiting room of Guru Nursing Home in north Kashmir’s Sopore town where she works as a manager.
“Can I talk to you, ma’am?” I ask her, nervously.
“About what?” she responds, without looking at me.
“It’s regarding your life,” I say, uncertain of how she will react.
My response registers an unsurprising smile on her face and she snaps back: “What is there to talk? Everyone knows.” Before I could blurt my next line, she adds: “What do you want to know?”
Entreating her to speak in private, she suddenly looks up and, with a voice betraying an uneasy calm about her state, she says, “When there was reason to talk, no one among you was here.”
The words roll out of her mouth with a tinge of grievance to them which her voice barely disguises.
Silence is a unwritten rule followed in the hospital if anyone enquires about Tabassum Guru, the wife of Mohammad Afzal Guru who was hanged inside New Delhi’s Tihar jail on February 9 last year as a conspirator of the attack on Indian Parliament in December 2001. The silence is not easy to break into. From attendees to ticket collectors, no one wants to speak anything to speak about Tabassum. She is a very bubbly girl, although one can’t be sure about what torments her from inside, are the only words spoken about her from one of the two girls at the Guru Paramedical Institute, which lies adjacent to the nursing home.
The waiting room is unusually empty on the day I came to meet Tabassum. Also known as Sopore Nursing Home, the private medical facility is located in the main town of Sopore, some 35 kilometers north-west of Srinagar city. Tabassum has been working here for almost a decade. Few months after her husband’s execution, the hospital became her permanent home when she shifted here along with her 15-year-old son Ghalib. The mother and son live alone in a single spacious room which Ghalib refers to as ‘Tihar Jail Number 4.’
Ghalib has been to the three jail blocks of Tihar to meet his father, and now he calls this fourth, Tabassum clarifies.
Wearing a traditional silk embroidered Pheran and a headscarf which fails to hide her pitch black hair streaked by grey strands, Tabassum’s face carries no emotion, yet her voice is fidgety as she finally lets her mind bare, “It’s our religious duty to see the faces of our dead, to bury them properly and to bid them a farewell. But my husband was denied all these courtesies because Indian government didn’t want us to. It’s painful.”
In the light of the recent commuting of fifteen death sentences by the Supreme Court of India
, Tabassum sees a design. She points out that Afzal was chosen to be punished right from the beginning even when there was absolutely no evidence linking him to the attack on Indian Parliament. In this, she sees a blatant anti-Muslim bias, “They wanted my husband dead. They killed him so that they can later forgive their own.”
In the wee hours of February 9 when Afzal was executed, Tabassum was roused in her hospital room by the ringing of her mobile phone. On the other side of the call was SAR Geelani, the co-accused in the Indian Parliament attack case who was later acquitted. They hanged Afzal, he said in a shallow tone. Tabassum was unable to absorb the gravity of what she had just heard. She didn’t believe it.
Outside, the hospital staff knew that Afzal was hanged but they couldn’t muster courage to break the news to her. Ghalib was at a relative’s place in Baramulla. She had no one to hug or console, except the hospital staff. As she was escorted in a hospital ambulance to Afzal’s ancestral place at Seer Jagir in Sopore, she saw uniformed troops stationed everywhere on the road. Slowly, the ‘rumour’ sank into her as truth that her husband was dead.
In the long, ten-year imprisonment of Afzal at Tihar jail preceding his execution, Tabassum had not once believed that he would be actually hanged. She had a mystical belief that they will set him free, even if it took twenty years. On jail visits, she would tell her husband that he will be a free man one day, to which Afzal would only smile.
“I used to tell him ‘Afzal, you would be out one day, but you will be an old man by then. Ghalib might be even married by then, but you will be out’,” she recalls with a smile.
In the initial days of their marriage when Tabassum was a new bride, Afzal would hold her hand as they went to market to pick groceries or purchase new clothes. One afternoon, while walking across the street, Indian Army personnel jeered and whistled at the couple from their camp. They threw stones, some of which hit Tabassum. Upon reaching home, Afzal was seething with anger. Tabassum asked him what was wrong. “We are slaves, I couldn’t say a word to them,” a visibly agitated Afzal told her.
The marriage with Afzal turned a demure Tabassum into the brave and determined woman that she is today. When she speaks about her life and marriage with Afzal, she does it with a hint of pride reflected in her elevated tone, “My husband often urged me to speak without fear,” she says.
Afzal would tell her in moments filled with a deep longing for the land he belonged to that one has to forfeit oneself for the freedom struggle to be kept alive. “If I don’t sacrifice myself, how will my son come to know about our struggle?” Afzal would often say.
Afzal had unique passion for literature. He was an avid reader and never missed a moment to pore through a volume. While taking meals, he would still be reading from a book in his free hand. When Ghalib was born and familial duties took over him, Afzal would often quip when little Ghalib would demand attention, “Waai Pyaari mye mileha kanh goaph (O Pyaari, I wish I could find a cave to read).”
After his arrest and detention at Tihar Jail, Tabassum would remember the words and ask him teasingly, “Goaph mileye (Have you found the cave now)?” to which Afzal would smilingly retort, “Zabardast goaph (Incredible cave).”
A month before his execution, Tabassum had received five bags full of books which Afzal had finished reading. “He particularly liked to read Maulana Rumi,” Tabassum says. The love for Rumi was such that when their son was born, Afzal instantly named him Shams Tabrezi, a twelfth century poet and a philosopher who is recognized as a spiritual instructor of Rumi and who was deeply revered and loved by him.
Tabassum, however, raised a genuine concern. She felt that in the inimitable Kashmiri parlance, Shams Tabrezi would be shortened to Tabrii, which means axe, and her son’s name would become a butt of ridicule. Afzal recognized this, and in presence of his father-in-law and other family members looked over to the bookshelf and his gaze was fixed on a volume titled Divan–e–Ghalib. Before further ado, Afzal announced: ‘What about Ghalib?’, and his father-in-law approved with ‘Marhaba’ (Most welcome).
Tabassum remembers her husband as a very economical man. Belonging to a middleclass household in Sopore, Afzal was a thorough family man. He took care of everyone’s needs. With his arrest, he only became more frugal, aware of his family’s limited means. Several months before Afzal’s execution, Tabassum had sent winter clothes to him which included a cinnamon-colored track suit, a sweater, Kashmiri Kulchi (bun), nun chai (Kashmiri salt tea), Dettol soap and several pairs of woollen socks.
“I bought him woollen socks for Rs 180 per piece and teasingly asked him, ‘Tche laagkha akh hatti sheeti mouzzae (Would you wear a Rs 180 socks?) Tchi tchuk na wanaan kam aezi kharach karaan (You always say, spend less)’. Tourre ossun (He laughed).”
This brings a tear into Tabassum’s eyes and she speaks with quivering lips, “When he was arrested, he had only Rs 32 on him.”
On my journey to Sopore, the cab driver who happened to be his neighbour spoke highly of Afzal’s beneficent character. “As children, Afzal bhai would give us money. He treated everyone with respect and love. He was a man with a capacious heart.”
The feelings are corroborated by Afzal’s brother-in-law who calls his sister’s husband a great man. “He was not a temperamental person. He was warm-hearted and loved to have fun.” Sitting nearby, Afzal’s father-in-law joins in, “Only if you could see the video tape of his wedding, he danced and sang.”
Afzal and Tabassum Guru are cousins, children of two sisters. Their coming together in marriage wasn’t plotted by anyone, least of all by Tabassum. Afzal was slated to marry his mother’s cousin. But fate had chosen someone else for him, to which he also played a part.
When Tabassum’s elder sisters’ three year old son died due to some medical complication, Afzal paid them a visit at their home in Handwara to join the mourning. His mother, Aisha, was also present there. Tabassum’s grandfather is said to have reprimanded Afzal and advised him to get married soon so that his mother would have someone to look after her. Afzal had quietly agreed.
On another occasion, Afzal was speaking about his marriage to one of his relatives and had plainly told him to convey to Tabassum’s grandfather, “Syoduy weanzas mye diizie panni koure hinz kuur (Tell him clearly that I want to marry his daughter’s daughter).”
Tabassum had no knowledge of this until the next day when Afzal came to her home in Azad Ganj locality of Baramullah. Tabassum was playing hopscotch in her courtyard when Afzal appeared on the scene.
“Do you know why I am here,” he asked her.
They talked and Afzal frankly expressed his wish to marry her. In three months’ time, on November 1, 1998, Afzal and Tabassum who was eighteen years old at that time, were knit in a bond of marriage which still holds together, despite the turbulences their married life has experienced, and with Afzal no more. Shortly after his arrest, Afzal, who by then must have known that he was implicated in a serious crime he didn’t commit, had asked Tabassum to divorce him.
“He said I was young and he couldn’t let my life be wasted. I told him if I were to be in his situation, would he leave me?” says Tabassum, to which Afzal had responded with silence.
It’s a testimony of the love for her husband that Tabassum is struggling to make possible a world for their son Ghalib that Afzal had dreamed for himself, that is for Ghalib to become a doctor. She sustains herself and takes care of her son’s education by dutifully doing her job.
“I have never seen her shying away from her duties. She is so soft-hearted and innocent. She speaks to every patient in the hospital with great love and concern,” said a pregnant lady who had come to deliver in this hospital for the second time, all the way from Kupwara.
Her job occupies her day and night, so much so that she has no time for social gatherings and other vagaries of common life peculiar to Kashmir
. Resigned to this fate, happiness for her is to see her son growing up and fulfilling the dream of his father that was cut short by a noose. She is so fixated with her job at the hospital that she calls the staff her family. Her relatives often quip, “On Ghalib’s marriage, the staff of nursing home would take care of everything.”
Right after the seven day period of her wedding to Afzal, her mother-in-law Aisha had come to Azad Ganj to offer her young daughter-in-law a white apron which belonged to Afzal. Aisha had envisioned the job for her and since then, Tabassum has obediently done her duties without a flaw.
The mother and son live a life devoid of commonality associated with others. Finding solace in each other’s friendship, Tabassum speaks of the boyish vicissitudes of Ghalib. “He is very much fond of cricket and during sleep he throws his hands in air, imitating his field actions.” Ghalib occasionally blurts out a word or two in his childish demeanour about how foreigners allow their children to pursue their interests.
“I tell him ‘Dear Ghalib, you are my only son, my only hope left in the world, my sole comfort.’ And he hugs me and understands,” Tabassum says.
On the day of Ghalib’s birth, the doctor said to Afzal’s anxious relatives: “Afzal’as dapp, Afzal zaav (Tell Afzal, Afzal is born).”
Ghalib speaks enthusiastically of cricket but he never forgets to add in an innocent but keen voice, “Mye tchuna Abu jee’yun khaab poore karrun (I have to fulfil my father’s dream)”
When Tabassum and Ghalib shifted to Sopore Nursing Home, four months after Afzal’s hanging, to spend the rest of their lives there, it was decision borne out of keeping to oneself and not bothering her parents and relatives anymore, who have always stood by her in her ordeal. Over dinner one evening, Tabassum asked his son whether he could stand seeing his father’s face before death if they (jail authorities) allowed them.
Ghalib’s response was a curt ‘no’. No, he couldn’t bear his father talking to him and, in a short while, be able to absorb the feeling that his father was dead.
“In a way, Ghalib’s response made me think that Indian government has only shamed itself by conducting a secret execution and not allowing us to see him or perform last his rites. And, by going there, we could only allow them to show the world that they are a great democracy. So we didn’t. Yiman gas roy-e-siyahi gasinn (They must be shamed).”
The thoughts of Tabassum are marked by a deep mistrust about the world. “After what has happened to me, I can’t trust anyone,” she says. Her life involves negotiating her emotions and duties in a world where her husband is no longer alive to counsel her, even when Afzal Guru was on death row hundreds of miles away in an Indian jail. It’s a deep absence but it doesn’t bog her down. She holds onto the remnants of the past; little snippets and beautiful memories of her grief-stricken marriage and determines to live a proud and dignified life. The fate she has met she doesn’t call it her own; she repeats that it’s the fate of every single Kashmiri fighting for justice.
Whenever Tabassum met him in jail, Afzal would observe her and tell her, “Bi wuch’ha zanh tchenyen aetchan manz oash (I wish I could see tears in your eyes).” She remembers him, repeating to her, in letters, and in person, “Tche tchai kan’yu waenij baneymich (Your heart has turned to stone in its strength).”
Before his departure into the world from which no news comes, Afzal wrote a poignant letter addressed neither to his wife nor to his son. H wrote it for ‘the nation’. “Suu oas kalle chalith dramuth (He had left behind the worldly pleasures) There was nothing in it for his family. It was a letter written for ahl-e-kasheer. He was never repentant. And the letter confirms his words: ‘Be proud of my fate’.”
Prior to his execution, Mohammad Afzal Guru had no inkling that it was for his execution that jail activities had quickened. He would observe from his cell and told the last person who visited him, a relative, “Rafiq, I think Bulla Singh will be hanged.”
Bulla Singh was another inmate awaiting execution. Not aware that it was for him that the gallows were refurbished, Afzal was told about his awaiting hour only after finishing his morning prayers. He was immediately removed from his cell, taken to block C of the prison. While being escorted by jail guards, he had shouted to other inmates, “O ho, yeha tchu myani kheatri (Oh well, the gallows are awaiting me).” “The person who buried him remembers him taking the last walk with utmost dignity and honour. Afzal hadn’t panicked. He stood firm,” says Tabassum.
Entering a spacious room at Tabassum’s birthplace – Azad Ganj in Baramulla, I was immediately struck by a large portrait of Afzal adorning the wall. It’s an earlier picture of him, bespectacled and donning a kifaya looking over to someone behind him, as police men escort him. In the household of Ghulam Mohammad Bhurro, Tabassum’s father, the picture is a reminder of not only a terribly wronged man but also of one who never bowed to the injustices of his oppressors and accepted his fate as a divine blessing.
Tabassum’s father and brother are proud of her and the life she is living. Not once is a tear of lament or regret shed. “My sister has a heart of Himalayan strength. She has gone through a terrible ordeal, yet she holds her ground, firm and determined.”
For Ghulam Mohammad Bhuroo, her regard for her daughter’s life and the man she married is expressed through an act. Each morning while waking up for Fajr (early dawn) prayers, Ghulam Mohammed stands in front of Afzal’s portrait and salutes him.