Noora Begum was yet to make sense of things as a young bride, when tragedies started striking her life, one after the other. Years later, as a young widow wooed by many suitors, she chose to feed and raise her children by working as a maid instead. But when the nightmarish nineties began devouring her children, one by one, she did not resign herself to fate. Instead she fought against all odds, and is now the caretaker of her orphan grandchildren.
As the street bustle outside her flood-torn house in Srinagar’s Habba Kadal area increases, Noora Begum sits in a murky room to narrate her long and hard struggle that makes her a model mother for the locality. She begins from the day when she was bid farewell by her father as a 12-year-old bride with a promise that she would uphold his dignity, and the sanctity of marriage, with all her heart.
Years later, a battered person, she flashes a shy smile over her father’s promise that she kept.
The endless tragedies started with her husband’s death due to asthma. She, however, did not even have a slight notion that it wasn’t the only death she would encounter in her family life. With six mouths to feed, she strove to survive by working as a maid.
While she worked, she made sure to safeguard her children’s self-respect. “That’s why I never let my daughters work,” she says, looking as if momentarily reliving her past. “It was against my self-esteem.”
As a young widow, Noora was very graceful and striking. “My neighbours used to tell me how beautiful I was,” her eyes sparkle as she says it.
With marriage proposals coming for her one after the other, she chose to not give it a thought, and focus on her children instead. “I had these little ones to look after,” she says, as tears falling from her chin begin to drench her dupatta. “It was a test as per the Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) teachings, and I had to go through it.”
As the silent sobs echo through the room, she continues, “I always covered myself with a dupatta. I never wanted anyone to look at me. I was told by my father that I should never let him down. I’m still following the path drawn from his words.”
As a maid, she first accompanied a bride to Pattan. But with time, as she was appreciated for her hard work and devotion, she found more work. “After working all day, I used to get back home with the food they would provide for my children,” she says.
After a hard day’s work, she found her happiness in seeing her children together. Their cat-fights and quarrels sounded music to her ears.
Her children were growing, and life seemed to be on a good course. But sadly, it wasn’t going to be like that forever.
When the nightmarish nineties dawned, her Karate-trained son couldn’t continue his neutrality. As a sportsperson, he soon found himself drawn towards the swelling rebel ranks around him.
‘Mouji, even if 50 bullets will hit me, they will trip on my body,’ she still remembers her son’s bravado at the time of embracing rebellion.
His militant moment had come when Kawdara went up in flames and left behind a trail of anger.
“As the place burnt, my son was told that women were molested when the armed forces set it afire,” the mother recalls. “Without giving a second thought, he went to fight for the cause.”
And then, sometime later, her son’s blood-drenched body was brought at her doorsteps amid slogans.
“I turned numb,” she describes the heartbreaking scene. “His body was ridden with 16 bullets. Flashbacks of his childhood went through my mind and it drove me crazy. My martyr son drove me crazy. I had protected him all these years only to lose him like that! I wanted to tear open my heart. My son, my martyr son…” At this point, her loud wails turn the mood mournful inside the murky room.
As a reporter, who is yet to come out of the university, coming face-to-face with such tragedies is difficult to take. I wanted to cry over her plight, console her—or maybe, vainly comfort her. But words betrayed me. How could a mother take so much, I wondered and got up to hug her! In that embrace, crying became the only solace. Nothing else worked.
For a moment, I thought, it was the end of her tragedies. I was wrong.
To avenge the death of his sibling, her other son ran away from home. She ran after him, like an insane on the streets filled with sad-faced onlookers. But the son gave her a crude slip and vanished. Some days later a woman spotted him in a nearby locality armed with a Kalashnikov and ran to inform Noora about it.
The mother draped her dupatta in a scurry and ran towards the spot. “It was him,” she remembers. “As soon as he saw me, he vanished and never came back, alive.”
The cycle of death continued, making her believe that her life had become a perpetual state of suffering and struggle, like Masl-e-Kashmir. But 70 years is a long time to brave such a life. However, there came a moment when she couldn’t take it anymore.
Devastated by the tragedies, she went out on the road, asking the passersby to stone her to death.Such was the feeling that she slammed her head on stones in the graveyard. “Seeing the grave of my young sons wasn’t easy for me,” the mother continues, wiping tears with her Pheran sleeve. “The pain was unbearable.”
That day when she was hitting her head with stones, bystanders tried to stop her. With blood dripping from her head, she was not in her senses, and not listening to anyone. “I couldn’t help myself but smash my head on the rocks,” she says, removing her dupatta to show the scars below her gleaming grey hair. “What option was I left with?”
As sufferings continued, then one day, she says while reclining to the wall with a numb expression, “I lost my third son as well.”
With gradual pauses, she recalls the day when she was doing the chores in the kitchen. “Suddenly that son of mine came with a blade in his hand,” she recalls, clutching hands in pain. “He had cut himself.”
When she asked him, why he did it, he said that he couldn’t see her work every day while he was doing nothing about it. “But how could he become my helping hand,” she pauses for a while. And then, suddenly breaks the silence by pointing towards her right leg, “He had paralysis here.”
After cutting himself to ease his pain, her son left from the front door in rage. She never saw him again.
Her son became another addition in the list of disappearance cases in the valley, never to be found again. She searched for him like the mothers of those who have been subjected to enforced disappearances in Kashmir, around 8,000 in number. But like them, she found no trace.
“He was 16-year-old,” Noora says, “He would’ve been 33 today.”
The pain of loss and longing could never subside. “It has been 58 years and it still haunts me,” she says. “It’s still there like an open wound.” Much of the pain stems from how she raised her children with toil, devoted her youth for their well-being, before losing them, one by one, to the unabated conflict.
“And then, I lost my eldest daughter as well,” she says, numb with recollection.
“She couldn’t tolerate the death of her brothers. She was unwell, and then she was diagnosed with cancer. She died leaving me with the responsibility of her children as well.”
But years of agonised work as a maid had already taken a huge toll on her health when she became her grandchildren’s new mother.
She once again had to work hard. But there were times, she says, when she used to cook husk for her grandchildren after running out of basic food supplies. While she toiled hard for her orphans, people tried to break her spirit by questioning her old age resolve. That, however, hardly bothered her. “I was only concerned about how I could provide for my grandchildren,” she says.
Today, as her motherly sacrifice has become an inspiration, Noore Maase, as she’s referred by all, is still working despite being in her seventies. Many of those who she worked for, were drawn by her personality and devotion.
A reputed business family from Kashmir, who she worked for, helped her rebuild the house after floods in 2014. During her granddaughter’s wedding, another business family helped her with supplies. Even the religious leaders pitched in. But it is the toil of her labour that she lives by.
“As long as my arms have the strength to labour, I will,” she shows an uncanny resolve, putting her sleeves up. “Many people love me, but I never have and I never will beg for help.”
But in her moment of solitude, when crushing grief returns to haunt her, she sings to unburden her heart. At times, even passersby on the street hear her sing in longing of her lost children.
“I am now waiting for the Day of Judgment,” she says, “when I will be rewarded for this, especially for keeping the promise of my father. My sons and daughter would be there with me. We will reunite. We have to reunite. And there, no one would ever separate us, again!”
Like this story? Producing quality journalism costs. Make a Donation & help keep our work going.