Six years after he was secretly executed in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, Mohammad Afzal Guru is still alive in the daily routine of his son and widow. The remembrance against the concerted efforts of forgetfulness is the pride that the mother-son duo wears like a badge of honour.
It’s a humid day of early spring. 2018.
Some 60 odd kilometers from Srinagar, a tall boy sporting a white uniform is playing cricket on his home-turf in Baramulla. At a stone’s throw, his mother is busy in chores inside a red-painted house standing on the Jhelum riverbank in the backdrop of a military installation.
The boy sweating on the field is Ghalib Guru—the lone son of Mohammad Afzal Guru. He’s a cricket aficionado and wannabe neurologist.
With the end of the first innings, he takes a brisk walk home, talking about his favorite cricketer: Indian cricket captain—Virat Kohli.
“Skills are to be appreciated, no matter what,” says Ghalib, breaking into an innocent smile.
After the first inning, Ghalib has to wait for his turn to bat. He sits under the shade of a tree with his playmates. And for a change, he talks about the existing education system.
“In Kashmir,” he says, “we do not believe in practicals. All you’ve to do is theory-based work.”
As his team’s opening batsman sends the ball behind the boundary line, Ghalib breaks into a joyful yell, with his fist in the air.
Despite being a passionate cricketer, the son of Afzal Guru is determined to live his father’s dream: to become a doctor. “We’re damaged but not broken,” he speaks with a resolve.
He wants to become a neurologist, and cure his grandmother, suffering from encephalopathy.
“She’s lying in the bed, breathing her last,” Ghalib makes a sad face. “Being a neurologist and studying about brain, is now my ultimate goal. I want to serve the people of my land, who’ve seen only miseries.”
His mother and lone parent Tabasum Guru used to work at a nursing home in Sopore, but now she has resigned from the job. “My son is at a crucial stage and he needs me,” the mother says.
Absorbed in the game, Ghalib resembles a lot like his father: The same eyes, the same nose and the same chin.
Afzal’s portrait inside their living room makes this resemblance blatantly clear. “He even walks like his father,” smiles Tabasum, who addresses her husband as Afzal Saeb Janatgar.
Still waiting for his turn to bat, Ghalib jokes around: “It seems these guys out there are determined to finish the match on their own!”
In her living room, Tabasum talks about her “one and a half year” marriage with Afzal Guru.
“That was too little a time for any bride,” she says. “Everything happened so fast — our marriage, his arrest and finally his execution.”
Innocent to the extent that one day, after getting married, she heard Afzal communicating on a wireless set. She mistook it as a radio, and told her mother-in-law that “Afzal Saeb” has bought a new radio set from Delhi.
“I didn’t know anything,” she giggles. “I was dumb.”
It was after Afzal’s arrest that Tabasum started to move around and making sense of things. She came to know about Tihar Jail, which she considers as a dragon that devoured her dreams.
This “dragon”, she says, has still imprisoned the mortal remains of her “solid, soft-spoken and intelligent” husband.
Ghalib is still impatiently waiting for his turn to bat. But the batsmen on crease are still batting with ease. For a change, he talks about his budding worldview.
He’s aware of the growing competition out there, and he knows that if he wants to shine he has to work and work hard. “I know the world won’t make it so easy for me,” Ghalib says. “But I’m up for it.”
Tabasum, meanwhile, recalls the day she first met Afzal.
She was playing Hop Scotch, known as Saza Loung in Kashmir, with her friends, when Afzal came to her house one day. They were cousins, but the relationship between the two families was not so good. They were ‘distantly related’. She had no idea about the purpose of his sudden arrival.
Afzal, she would soon learn, had come for her. He sought her hand for marriage. “Before me, he was ready to marry a girl,” Tabasum says. “She was beautiful. I knew her.”
However, he soon walked out of that prospective marriage over compatibility issues. It was during that time he had seen Tabasum, playing Saza Loung with her friends in the lawn of her house, and decided to marry her.
Celebrations have started in the ground. Ghalib’s team has won the match. They chased the target of 135 runs with ease. Ghalib runs to hug his teammates in pure joy and delight.
He soon returns under the shade of the tree and resumes talking. “India thinks that we are dumb people,” he smirks. “But we have proven our mettle time and again.”
Nostalgia, meanwhile, continues at his home.
As a young girl, Tabasum was told to dress nicely and see Afzal. She had entered into the room with a cup of tea. Others present in the room left, and provided them space to talk in private. There, Afzal clearly told her why he was marrying her.
“I want you to take care of my mother, that’s it,” Afzal told her. Tabasum didn’t reply.
Before leaving the room, Afzal asked her: “Are you willing to marry me?”
“Let my father decide that,” Tabasum ended the conversation and left.
Both the families agreed; Afzal and Tabasum soon became a couple. “He proved to be a very good husband gifted with a sense of humour,” she recalls. Whenever she thinks about those moments now, it uplifts her gloom and makes her smile.
Under the tree shade, Ghalib recalls some of his jail time interactions with his incarcerated father: “He would ask me: What’s a nucleus? What is a cell? I couldn’t answer his questions, because I was a small kid then.”
Afzal was equally concerned about Tabasum.
“Once, before his arrest, he asked me to prepare a chapter,” Tabasum recalls. “When I couldn’t do it because of chores, he, in a fit of anger, threw utensils out from the window, yelling: ‘Che Rozakh Yeche’ (You won’t change).” She breaks into a big smile over the fond memories.
Outside, Ghalib talks about his dream to study abroad. “But authorities are reluctant to clear my travel documents,” he says.
The mother-son duo once applied for travel documents to perform Hajj. They were even barred from that, Ghalib rues: “People want to make you fall, but every time standing up and stepping towards your journey is real courage.”
Back home, Tabasum says, Afzal was preparing her for this day, when there’ll be no one to help her. Amid a fleeting silence, she soon shares another jail interaction.
She once visited Afzal in Tihar with Ghalib. Then, he was sharing his cell with another prisoner namely Bashir Ahmad from Sopore. She waited for the mulaqat along with Bashir’s family in the lawn.
Ghalib (6) and Bashir’s son (9) started playing around and “soon engaged in a childish conversation,” Tabasum recounts.
“Bashir’s son asked Ghalib: ‘Is your father also working in this factory?’ To which Ghalib replied: ‘What factory? Can’t you see? Is this a factory? This is a jail! Jail number 3′,” Tabasum recalls.
While running towards his family, Bashir’s son started crying and screaming. He was told by his family that his father works in a factory called Tihar.
“Is it necessary to tell everything to a little kid?” Tabasum got embarrassed, after Bashir’s family scolded her.
“He came to know by himself,” Tabasum replied. “Sometimes, you don’t have to teach kids, they get well-versed with things subconsciously.”
Later, Tabasum says, Afzal tried to change Ghalib’s impression about the jail by terming it as a factory.
“But Ghalib wouldn’t take this,” the mother says. “He responded: ‘Don’t fool around, this is a jail! Here it is written in bold letters— JAIL NO 3!’ ”
It was 9th February, 2013—Saturday morning, when Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi’s Tihar jail.
Convicted for his role in the 2001 Indian Parliament attack, he received a death sentence for his involvement, which was upheld by the Indian Supreme Court. Following the rejection of a mercy petition by the President of India, he was executed on 9 February 2013.
His body was buried within the precincts of Tihar Jail. Independent commentators have questioned his sentence stating that he did not receive adequate legal representation and that his execution was carried out in secrecy.
That morning as entire Kashmir woke up with the news of Afzal Guru’s hanging, a four-lined letter written in Urdu had a message for Tabasum: “Don’t mourn my death!”
“The day he was executed, the other Kashmiri jail mates barged into his cell, and could only lay their hand on a copy of Quran Sharief, which he was reading,” Tabasum says, looking out from the window. “He’s not dead; he’s there for me every time.” Whenever she reads that copy of holy Quran, she feels his presence.
She has also preserved the bookmark in some of his books. “He was reading this page, the time he was taken up for execution,” she says. The bookmark was at the last pages. He had almost finished it.
Despite preserving everything which belonged to her husband—Quran, letters, photos, etc—she’s still waiting for the day, when she’ll receive the remaining things—books, clothes, spectacles and most importantly, his mortal remains—which haven’t been yet returned back to his family.
“A part of me still lies in Tihar,” Tabasum lifts her eyes towards Afzal’s smiling portrait in the room.
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