Chana masala wrapped in an old newspaper at the riverside slopes near bund-road in Srinagar and the desultoriness of this afternoon.
Aimlessly wandering into the past had become a recurring animation, while I imagined the Jhelum coming to a standstill and carefully trying to listen to all thatI whispered to myself.
This is the story of two Martyrs: My father and I.
He is Shaheed, while I am Shahid. He was a Mujahid, who died at the hands of the Indian Security forces while fighting for what he believed in. I am a witness, who saw how one man’s death became another man’s bread.
Science had been my favourite stream and becoming a doctor my dream. Although, I managed to secure percentages of above 95 in 10th and 12th standard, I had failed to qualify for a medical seat in the Common Entrance Test (CET).
Perhaps, I was not capable enough to be a doctor. Maybe being lucky among thousands of students applying for just 150 odd seats, was not my destiny. The protective discrimination of scheduled casts, scheduled tribes, other backward classes and the sports quota which in essenceprotected vote-banks failed to protect my dreams.
My quota was to be found somewhere else. The quota of the orphans of the freedom struggle. While the sacred land has one Custodian of the two Holy Mosques, in Kashmir we had two main custodians of one holy movement. With of course some branch offices.
The promised quota made me knock the doors of one of these custodians of the freedom struggle. Those who had given my widowed mother a copy of the Holy Quran, assuming that it would suffice and cater to the worldly needs of her and her orphaned children.
The name of my father got me an entry into the palace of one such custodian. He praised him and complimented me for my steadfastness while going through my mark sheets. He explained to me that I was too late for this year’s admissions, but promised me that he will secure my admission the next year.
I believed him.
In the wake of his assurance, I started working as a salesman in a local dry fruit shop at Polo View while eagerly waiting for the year to pass. A year, which seemingly had longer days than any of the years before.
The next spring, I went back. I was given a form to fill in and instructed to submit it along with all the other required documents at the High Commission of Pakistan in Delhi. The signed recommendation letter from the custodian of the freedom movement attached to the form would serve as the seal of merit.
A few months after returning from Delhi and much closer to the dates of admission, I decided to inquire about the time of my departure to the Land of the Pure.
I was told that due to some miscommunication at the High Commission, my admission could not be realized. The miscommunication could not be repaired either, as other ‘deserving’ students had already been selected. I was told to come back next year.
Disenchanted, I started to make my way out of the gates of this fairy-tale compound with its palaceinto the reality of the world outside.
The world, where I belonged.
Just before stepping outside, an aide of the custodian of the freedom struggle turned up behind me and put his arm around my shoulder. We stepped out. Into the real world, where he presented a very worldly proposition.
“You will never become a doctor this way. I can arrange a Visa for you and my friend in Pakistan will meet you and arrange your admission. Don’t worry”.
This man seemed to be part of some divine intervention before the angel of death could suck the soul out of my dreams. “What will I have to do?”, I asked.
“1 Lakh Rupees and I will arrange everything”, he whispered. I stared at his face. He nodded his head and repeated, “I will arrange everything”.
My selfish dreams bargained with my widowed mother and I convinced her to sell off the scarce jewellery she had, in order to defray my expensive journey to success.
After paying the agent of the custodian of the freedom movement and collecting my visa at the High Commission in Delhi, I reached Lahore via Amritsar through Wagah Border and contacted Basit. The agent of the agent of the custodian of the freedom movement.
The next day, Basit and I went to the University of Lahore to fill in the forms of admission and clear all other formalities. It was apparent that Basit was a known face here. During the formalities, we were told that everything was fine except a so-called ‘Equivalence Letter’ which would ensure my admission.
Basit assured me that getting such a letter would not take long and that he will arrange for it. He left me at cheap hotel on College Road in Lahore.
I had to wait for his call.
I decided to call Basit after a few days and he again promised me that it would not take long. He assured me that I should not worry. I asked him what exactly an ‘Equivalence Letter’ meant and offered my help in attaining one. Without explaining, he said: “I told you not to worry. I will arrange everything”.
A few more days passed without a call from Basit. I decided to call him again. To my utter shock, his phone was switched off. I checked the number and called again and again, but his phone remained switched off.
I kept calling Basit and then reality started to sink in. My visa would expire in 2 weeks, I was running out of money and the only person I knew here, had betrayed me. In utter frustration, I started looking for Basit in the city of Lahore.
I enquired about Medical colleges in Lahore and started visiting them. My helplessness asked shopkeepers in which colleges Kashmiri students could be found. I started visiting the places where Kashmiris ate. I looked everywhere for him but Basit seemed to have disappeared off the face of the earth.
In my search to find Basit, I reached a small canteen type restaurant close to the Allama Iqbal Medical College, where I found some Kashmiri boys having a cup of tea and samosas while they were talking in Kashmiri. I approached them and without any pleasantries or introducing myself, asked, “Do you know a man called Basit who arranges admission here”?
They looked at me. I started to turn around and search further, when one of the boys said in Kashmiri, “What happened, brother”? It made me sit down.
They listened patiently and after I had finished, their faces showed a blend of cynicism and sympathy. Perhaps even bordering arrogance and a bit sarcasm on my either my stupidity or naiveté.
The boys told me that I had been fooled by the custodian of the freedom movement, the man in Srinagar and Basit. They explained that it doesn’t work the way I thought it did.
“The first form you filled in and submitted to the High Commission in Delhi, reaches back to the Separatist Camp in Kashmir after the necessary formalities and they have to select the candidates whom they desire to give admission out of their quota. The Separatists have a total number of at least 60 medical seats each year”.
“These seats are meant for the children of the Martyrs, but you will not find any of them here. The seats are mostly distributed among the family members of the separatists. Some are given to the party workers and their family members. Others are given to the children of acquaintances, doctors, engineers, political allies and even bureaucrats. The remaining ones are sold for anything between 5 to 8 Lakhs”.
I kept listening and believing them in disbelief.
“What is an Equivalence letter?”, I asked.
“You will only receive such a letter after the Ministry of Higher Education has evaluated and certified your degrees. They will only certify it if you can produce a NOC from India and an endorsement letter from a gazetted officer here in Pakistan. But the main thing, is a recommendation letter from the Separatists, which states that you are at least sympathetic to the movement if nottotally anti-Indian. Every Kashmiri who studies in Pakistan has to have such a recommendation letter. Without it, no Kashmiri will get any kind admission”.
“But a recommendation letter will only ensure your admission. You still will have to pay the fees, hostel charges and all other expenses yourself. What really will translates into a free education is one of those 60 seats. That will ensure that you will not have to pay any fees or hostel charges. It will be absolutely free. On top of that, the government of Pakistan will give you 10.000 Pakistani Rupees every month to cover your expenses”.
“That is whatall of us have”, they said.
With a dry throat I asked, “And what do your parents do?”
Aadil was the son of a Chief Engineer in Srinagar. Faizan’s father was a doctor. Khalid’s father was a well-known businessman and Irfan was a relative of the wife of a Separatist leader.Wives, whohad their own separate quota of seats in Pakistan. Just like people like me.
The chana’s where almost finished.
I brought the wrapped newspaper close to my mouth. Emptying it in my mouth unveiled an advertisement at the bottom of this wrapped, cone-like piece of old newspaper which read, “MBBS in Pakistan”.
I looked at it and crumbled the paper and threw it in the Jhelum.
Let it flow to Pakistan.