Riyaz Ahmad made his living by painting messages on walls. He was a sign painter. He survived on irregular work assignments from Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC). In his late thirties, he stood out on the street for his imposing height. He had a thin frame but he was a tall man. Little patches of grey hair had begun to grow around his whiskers.
Life was difficult for a daily-wage employee like him. It was a daily struggle to earn enough to feed his family of five. Every day he had to think how to cover his famil expenses. Sometimes, when there were no SMC assigned tasks, he worked in an automobile garage in the city centre, alongside other car-mechanics, repainting used cars. There he had to work extra hours at refinishing metal body parts. Unused to such strenuous labour, Ahmad usually returned home late when he worked there.
He would leave for work in the early morning and stop near the walls he’d been assigned to paint with various commercial messages. Ignoring the roar of passing traffic and the dust thrown up by vehicles racing by, he would open his paint box and begin drawing. He worked on advertisement messages for business houses and government corporations until his day was done. Sometimes he painted advertising campaigns like ‘Yae aaraam ka mamla hai (it’s a matter of comfort) for the Rupa Underwear Banyaan company. Other days he was assigned to paint hoarding advertisements like ”I am Kashmir” for Khyber Cements corporation.
Unlike previous years, at the beginning of 2010, the pace of his work assignments began to steady. He usually returned home tired at the end of his hard day’s labor. But his work was paying off. He felt good. He was happy.
Then came the summer of 2010.
People…. a lot of people….all the people…men, women, children, the elderly and the infirm… All came out of their houses and filled the streets. They were protesting against the occupation of their land and killings of unarmed protesters by government forces. Ahmad was one among hundreds of people who came out onto the streets.
During July and August, as the civil uprising intensified, the government clamped down on the city’s newspapers and news channels. All that mattered to people were the protests on the streets. Ahmad forgot his painting work. Going out onto the streets and participating in the daily protests was more important to him. He wanted his voice to be heard amongst his countrymen. He wanted to register his protest.
The indignity of living under the occupation had always hurt his sense of self-respect. He hated the sight of Indian troops patrolling the streets. He hated it when the troops put up road barricades and frisked people. He could not recall a single day in his life when he did not encounter military troops and bunkers occupying the streets. Accompanying other protestors, he raised his voice against the troops. He wanted them to leave Kashmir. He wanted his people to reclaim the occupied spaces.
He began to see numerous anti-government and pro-freedom graffiti slogans appearing on some of the walls he’d previously painted on. His finely detailed environmental and commercial messages were obliterated by the angry protest slogans and graffiti now reflecting the political aspirations of people. He didn’t mind seeing his work destroyed. The sites he used to paint on now hosted rebellious messages of resistance: ‘GO INDIA, GO BACK’, ‘FREE KASHMIR…’
During the intense months of summer protests, he would leave his downtown Srinagar home and, after walking around five kilometers into the town, he would merge into the protesting crowd on the streets, unsure whether he would return alive. With his fellow protesters, he was no longer just a painter but one of them, a brother. Like everyone else, he was outraged by the killings and constant repression unleashed by the government forces. The injustices filled him with rage.
The protests on the streets reflected the peoples’ desire for freedom. As the weeks went by, more and more people joined the protests, shouting slogans like “Hum kya chahatay ?– Azadi!” (What do we want? Freedom!), “Jis Kashmir to Khoon say sincha, woe Kashmir hamara hai!” (The Kashmir that has been nourished with our blood is ours). The protestors were met with bullets fired by police and CRPF troops. But that did not stop them from going out onto the streets. Some young protestors, refusing to back off despite many warnings by the troops, tore their shirts, shouting pro-freedom slogans, daring CRPF troops to shoot them. At times the cries for freedom moistened their eyes.
Over 100 unarmed people died in clashes with government forces.
The streets were filled with mourners. A deafening, after death silence, created a mournful ambiance. News about young boys shot at by the government forces on the streets kept trickling in every day. For a while grief, the unbearable loss of young lives, silenced the rage of people. The government authorities were quick to send out self-congratulatory press releases to the media. They had coined an often ab-used term for this brief, enforced silence: ‘normalcy returns’. The city’s graveyard silence meant ‘peace’ for the government.
As the death toll increased, Ahmad felt as though a beehive of memories was being disturbed by each new fatality. Beyond a certain point, as the number of people killed increased every day, the deaths became mere statistics. He felt a heavy sense of numbness. Death no longer registered for him the way it should have, the way it used to. He seemed to lack the capacity to even mourn now. He hated the way he felt on those occasions.
Curfews made Ahmad particularly restless, forcing him back to the suffocating confines of his home. Imposed against the will of the people, curfews silenced the everyday noises on the streets. As restrictions remained indefinitely in place for days on end, Ahmad sometimes thought of breaking the military cordon and going out onto the street shouting at the top of his lungs. But he knew Indian troops patrolling the district had been given shoot-on-sight orders. Much as he wanted to, at times he could not bring himself to brave their bullets. He felt powerless.
After being confined to his house, without any paying work for many days during the summer uprising, Ahmad finally left his home on a sunny week day morning. He was carrying his paint-box in his hand. He was hoping to resume his work. He walked through the streets with hesitant steps. People had been confined to their homes for many uncomfortable days. They were even prohibited from going out to fetch vegetables and milk from downtown market areas in the city. No one knew when the curfew was going to end.
The curfew was finally lifted for one day in the middle of August.
People heaved a brief sigh of relief. Fearing another round of curfews, they rushed to the nearest shops which had reopened that morning. Hundreds of householders thronged the markets, buying more than their required needs. All their daily domestic requirements – rice, pulses, dry fruits, milk products, cooking oil etc, as well as foodstuff that could be stored for use during the harsh days of curfews ahead. No one knew when a curfew was going to be imposed again, although it could be announced anytime. Uncertainty became a state of mind.
That day the wall Riyaz Ahmad was planning to paint with an assigned advertisement message for the Srinagar Municipal Corporation happened to protect a Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) military camp. This realization made him uncomfortable. It interfered with his thoughts.
Few days back, while accompanying other protestors, he had stopped near this military camp, fearlessly shouting pro-freedom slogans.
What if they come out and beat me up, he thought as he stepped close to the wall, what if they shoot me…?
Arriving at the military camp side of his assigned wall, he opened his paint box and took his time selecting from many colors. From some distance, a trooper could be seen standing guard, his hand resting on his gun pointing out towards the street. Another trooper peered suspiciously out from the slit-hole of a bunker at the other end of the wall surrounding the camp.
Aware of their watchful eyes, Ahmad felt uncomfortable painting anything on the wall. As he reluctantly began to mix colors, his movements were slow and unfocussed. As he began to paint, his strokes were unsteady. His thoughts drifted elsewhere. His hands felt stiff. He could only think of blackness – the colour of rage, the colour of mourning.
After a while, a message emerged out of the white capital letters he’d been painting in broad brush strokes:
KEEP YOUR CITY CLEAN AND GREEN
Majid is an award winning journalist based in Kashmir