A day before my return to the US during my January 2015 visit to Kashmir, I met Ateeqa Ji again, this time at the University of Kashmir. She called me and invited me to a “program on girl child,” organized in part with the Markaz-e-Noor. When I entered after taking off my shoes at the front door, I saw Ateeqa Ji sitting in the front row on the left side which was predominantly occupied by men while a dozen women, some of them in complete face veils, were occupying a space on the right side of the hall. As soon as she saw me, Ateeqa Ji quickly stood up in excitement and offered me her own seat – a spot decorated with cylindrical cushions covered in white gilaf. After a bit of polite haggling and my refusal to take her spot, she sat down and I took the space on her left.
We chatted for a while and kept waiting for the Vice Chancellor, the “chief guest” of the event that was supposed to start at noon, but when the VC was nowhere to be seen even by 1:00 pm, people started getting impatient. Ateeqa Ji turned to me in an embarrassing tone, “Sadaf Ji, do people come to meetings this late in the US as well?” to which I responded in a negative. She appreciated that. In a few minutes, the convener began the program and Ateeqa Ji talked various problems faced by women of Kashmir — problems at home, in public and at the work place. She spoke about “the lack of self-confidence in women” its side-effects which often expresses itself in the objectification of women.
Next, Ateeqa Ji invited me on stage to “speak a few words” on the topic, and I, hesitantly obliged. By then the VC had arrived and taken the special seat in the center of the stage. While I was talking, a bearded man came to me with a little note in his hand that read, “This is not a seminar, please be short.” I quickly finished my point and sat beside a burqa-clad woman next to me. I was sipping kehwa from a beautiful chinaware tea cup and gulping on the last crumb of a shirmaal when I saw the woman writing something on a piece of paper that she pulled from out of a file and passed it to me quietly. The meeting was adjourned after a little bit of commotion over the remarks of the VC who said that “women were responsible for their own woes,” at the conclusion of his views and those of another male faculty who declared that “women’s job was to bear and raise kids while that of men was to earn and support the family.” I retorted in protest and some other women joined in as well. At that uneasy note, people dispersed.
aap se jii bhar ke baat karna chaahti huun (‘I want to talk to you at great length’), the burqa-clad woman had said to me while passing the piece of paper along with her email address. I discovered she was a comrade of Ateeqa Ji in her activism on women’s issues, closely involved in the affairs of the women’s welfare organization Jamiah Falaah-e-Nisvaan set up some years ago. I tried to meet her in the adjacent room but it soon got jam-packed with people and suddenly I found myself ensconced between three men on a sofa – one on my right and two on my left while my new friend squeezed into a corner at the other end of the room hesitant to break the invisible barrier between us. She had promised to “unveil” in private when I told her that I felt uncomfortable talking to a person I could not see. I looked at my watch and realized I was getting late. “I have to leave,” I said. I had to prepare for my return journey and meet another friend who was waiting for me outside. Ateeqa Ji offered me a ride back, but I asked her to excuse me and began to leave. “Wait,” she quickly turned around for something and came back with a package: “This is for you. From Sopore.” The bag full of kulchas that she had brought as a parting gift traveled with me to the United States along with several documents and scores of photographs she had handed over to me earlier; my husband and I relished the kulchas for several weekends over nun chai.
I visited Kashmir again in June that year to gather more information on the collections. Over the following year, I stayed in touch with Ateeqa Ji off and on in connection with my unsuccessful attempts in pursuing funds for digitization and documentation besides training of personnel in the methods in cataloging and preservation. The proposal was submitted and declined twice by the British Library (United Kingdom) in 2015-16. Next year, in summer 2016, I was in Kashmir again for a grant-writing workshop (which sadly was never held due to the situation) and for collecting more information for a re-submission. When I was frantically trying to connect with Ateeqa Ji for a letter that needed her signature, with phones only working intermittently (thanks to the government restrictions), I received a short call from her: Sadaf Ji, main aap se bahut maa’zrat-khwah hoon. Internet band hai, is liye main letter nahi bhej sakti, aur hadtal ki wajah se aap se milne Srinagar bhi nahi aa sakti (‘Sadaf Ji, I am very sorry. Since the Internet is not working, I cannot send you the letter. And because of the hadtal, I am unable to travel to Srinagar to meet you (and deliver the letter by hand)’). After checking into a hotel at Rajbagh for Internet access, I somehow managed to submit the proposal, this time to the National Endowment for Humanities (USA). The proposal was declined a third time earlier this year for insufficient information.
For the first time in many years, I did not visit Kashmir this past summer in 2017. Disappointed at my previous attempts, I did not have the enthusiasm nor the patience to pursue the grant a fourth time during the next funding cycle. I lost touch with Ateeqa Ji in the meantime and the next thing I heard about her was that Ateeqa Ji was no more. Heartbroken and embarrassed, I regretted the loss of the repository of knowledge that departed with her – knowledge that may not be assessed by ordinary people nor retrievable by ordinary means. One can only hope that the treasure she left behind is taken care of with the same dedication and passion that she harbored.
© Sadaf Munshi, October 6, 2017.