In Depth

The darkest room in Downtown

After a pellet burst shattered his left eye while discharging his professional duty last fall, photojournalist Zuhaib Maqbool reconciles with his partially dark world with a disturbing routine.

Tension created by the barefaced militant mood makes it a messy space. Inside this unlit room at Srinagar’s Rainawari locality, Zuhaib Maqbool sits with curtains closed. Placed at an arm’s distance, his ashtray is over-stuffed with bits of smoked cigarettes. An image of a wrecked young man comes across to one’s mind.

It is hard to reckon that it was this handsome and well built man, wearing his cameras as badge of honour, meeting people in and around Srinagar’s Press Colony till last fall. Then he had a simple qualification—ex-VJ and a professional photojournalist—before he became another pellet victim in Kashmir.

He was shot not far from his home where he was covering a protest. The moment duck-hunting pellet gun rattled, he was caught on camera, screaming: My eye has been shattered, mother! (Mojye, mehay poth laal!) One burst was enough to shut his shuttle, his left eye, and leaving a pellet-constellation on his muscular body. Those needles, he says, are still embedded somewhere deep inside him.

That summer, this downtowner known for his stylish outfits and fast bikes, was regularly covering the conflict, where even kids and pre-teens were being wantonly pelleted and left blinded.

Each day as the cries for Azaadi intensified in Valley, the bloodbath escalated. And to cover those gory scenes, was making him restless. At times, he and his tribe faced the public fury. Even then, Zuhaib never had a rest, before…

Damage done to his eyes and body is agonising to see. He has to have his shades on with its right side covered with adhesive tape so that light doesn’t enter his damaged eye and touch his raw nerve.

Zuhaib Maqbool in his room in Downtown, Srinagar. (FPK Photo/Syed Shahriyar)

“So, how many pellets were removed?”

“Not sure, but around 200 still there.”

“200?! Why didn’t they remove it?”

“Pierced deep, you know [Smiles]. If they remove, at least half of them, the procedure will give me more than 200 stitches, making me look like Frankenstein…”

In her novel, Frankenstein, Mary Shelley tells a story of a young scientist who creates a grotesque but sapient creature in an unorthodox scientific experiment. In Zuhaib’s case, that experiment was his dark room.

The photojournalist had painted his room black days before he was shot with pellets. He wanted to experiment with dark shades. “But who had imagined,” he says, rather dismissively, “that I would soon be a victim of darkness.”

Last year—even today—Kashmir’s mounting pile of dead and disfigured leave behind some signs, unraveling their mindset about their soon-to-become-fatal-fate. Latest in this list was a slain Budgam boy whose notebook reads: ‘some invisible force need me.’

But the very mention of Frankenstein breaks Zuhaib into an eccentric laughter, ringing hauntingly in his dark room for a while. The scene makes it no better than a dark humour for the tall muscular youth who has so far endured pain and managed medical complicity with ease. But then, at times, trauma and daily mental stress become hard to cope with, he says—especially when everything turns dark when he rubs his only functional eye, left eye, to ease itching.

Clearly, the post-pellet life has many pitfalls, triggering a different perspective in him. He now identifies himself with the bruised brethren of Kashmir—rendered partially or completely blind with pellets. But then, being born blind and becoming one are two different things, he seems to suggest. The very thought is now depriving him of his sleep.

“I told you,” he says with an abrupt pause, “that I couldn’t sleep last night.” After intermittent silence, he resumes, “but what if I tell you, I haven’t been able to sleep from the past seven days — not even a bit!” In his limited sleep, he says, his nightmares have been replaced by blankness now.

“So how do you spend your time?”

“Hospital, trauma, tension…”

“And?”

“And, hope.”

“Hope?”

“Hope to return to the field, with camera and a gas mask.”

To get into the groove, he is into scary rehearsals these days. He stands in front of a mirror and tries to cover his eyes with his hands—to see, if the next time a policeman fires a pellet, can he save his eyes? Every time he does that, he finds it hard to save his skin in the line of fire. The assault has made him jittery. Even imagination, he says, triggers scare in him.

There is another worry. He seems to equate pellet victims with social casualty. Recently, when he was invited to a family function at his cousin’s place, he sat alone in a separate room. He didn’t want to face the gathering.
“But why did you isolate yourself?”

“I didn’t want to become subject of the gathering and turn festive moment into a gloomy affair.”

It is this humane side he now dreads to lose with each passing day. “I would always entertain my friends with my jokes and go out with them. Now I don’t feel for such things anymore. I sometimes try to make people comfortable around me, but I cannot go on faking normalcy for ever.” Even visiting a doctor has turned into a hopeless routine now. “I visit the doctor. He checks me up, gives me hope and I come back. And that’s it!”

Constantly grappling with hope and despair, Zuhaib has found a new expression: the twin tattoos on his arms. On his right hand is a name of a very close friend who stood by him in tough times; and on the left hand is the date when pellets hit him.

“It took the tattoo artist eight hours to draw those tattoos,” he says. The needle kept pricking him, but he didn’t show any sign of pain while getting it done. Perhaps enduring a bigger pain has already left him numb.

The same numb self reflects in a large mirror placed opposite to him. He continuously glares at his own frozen looks in it. Nearby, a big portrait of his college days, glares back at him. In his dark world, where he keeps editing his old pictures, only this silent communication seems speaking aloud.

Next, he mentions his beloved but broken camera. “I am very passionate about my photography,” says Zuhaib, whose camera was shattered during the pellet assault on him. “Even if I die I would like them to bury my cameras with me.”

Out of his dark space, the cop who trained gun and left him partial-blind remains prowling on the familiar streets. Upon spotting him, he wants to do the unthinkable. He wants to hug him—sans bothering to ask, ‘Why?’—before returning to the darkest room in Downtown

The darkest room in Downtown
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