Wazul Jhelum: The Story Of The ‘Half Widows’ Of Kashmir

Posted: May 22, 2018

A poignant story that captures the plight of the ‘half widows’ of Kashmir. The emotional turmoil that these women go through is unimaginable.

“Do you know what this is?” Urshia asked, the sadness in her eyes evident, though a mild smile played on her lips.

“Is this your last gift?” Saffiya asked, as her attention was drawn to the two-in-one cassette player Urshia was holding on her lap. She acknowledged it as the final gift her husband might have left for Urshia.

“It is…and this cassette too.” With that Urshia began humming the song that was playing on the cassette player eliciting Saffiya’s attention…

Baetti naye, dooryei

Chuon zaraay


{I am also far from you

I am your soulmate

Oh my beloved}

Saffiya was enthralled to see her new friend completely immersed in the song, that she herself had never heard of, except for the last three days that she had met Urshia. Her quest for peace in the disturbing times had led her here, by the river Jhelum, where she had met Urshia sitting all alone crooning along with the melody being played on her player. She wondered why the same song kept playing on it every day, but never bothered asking. She was simply glad that, at least, she had company every day through the few hours that she would sit here by the river, hoping to drown some of her pain in the waters. That there was someone by her side who was going through the same heartache, the same sense of hopelessness. The pain of loss seemed to ease a bit listening to these songs with her friend.

Realising that they had been sitting here for the last four hours, Saffiya excused herself for the day. “It’s getting dark now, I should return home,” she said trying to bring her friend out of her reverie. “Are you not going home?”

Urshia smiled at her- the mysterious smile she had been offering every time she wished not to respond. Her eyes drifted back to the river waters, indicating that she wished to be left alone, just like every day.

“Seriously! It has been three days since I have been seeing you here, sitting in the same spot. You are always here when I arrive, and leave after I have returned. Do you ever go back to your home anyway?” Saffiya tried to joke.

“I will leave when it is time,” Urshia finally said. “Don’t worry about me, my zuva, you may leave…it is really getting very dark.”

“I feel tired sometimes…my eyes, actually,” Saffiya’s month-long wait had now begun to break her spirit. “I have cried for so many days, now my eyes do not know what else to do. They seem to have run dry. This wait seems endless.”

“It’s just been a month, zuva, my friend. Your wait will be over…soon.” As Urshia said these unconvincing words, a silence fell between the both of them. They both knew that their plight was no different than the thousands of other women, who were waiting, somewhere along the Jhelum, for their life to restart. Urshia hoped that Saffiya would not have to wait for as long as… probably herself.

“Do you ever fear that you would be left behind, just like this…all alone?” Saffiya’s innocent question did not jitter Urshia at all. In fact, she was as calm as ever, “I don’t!” she said. “I think our purpose is to come here and wait….yes, that is THE purpose. I think if we do not wait, our hopes would be diminished too. With a leap of faith, we must stay here, by the Jhelum, till our wishes come true and our prayers are answered.” she paused with a sigh, “don’t worry, my zuva, you won’t be left alone, I promise.”

The chinar had already started shedding its leaves this season and winter was on its way. With the challenging weather in the offing, the days were about to get tougher for them to sit here for hours and wait.

“Are you worried that it would be difficult for you to come here and wait any longer, especially during the winter months?” Urshia asked.

Saffiya was unsure how to answer that. At twenty years of age, patience was not one of her virtues, regardless she was required to keep a brave front. With the husband gone at such a young age, and no one to support her at home, she was unsure where else she could go looking for her answers.

“It is not the weather I am bothered about. My worry is, what if my wait is never over,” she said, concern writ all over her face.

“Saffiya, our life is like this player here. It often plays the songs that we don’t want to hear, like this melancholy one. You hope that you get to listen to happy songs- songs of love, of togetherness, of promises. And when you are thrown into something as unexpected as a ‘pause’, you are unsure whether to press rewind or forward. You can only wish that whatever song it is, it simply plays. And then you play along with it too.” Urshia’s allegory found no meaning for Saffiya. She kept staring in the blank, trying to figure out the hidden message in what her friend had just said.

Unsure about where to lead the conversation anymore, Saffiya began, “About 8 months back we got married. It was the best phase of my life. I was happy like I had never been. All the love, all the joys, all the dreams, that I had ever associated with marriage had finally found fruition. I was not prepared to become a ‘half-widow so soon…ever! I guess, no one ever is. But one is left alone, to fend for themselves, to lead a life in a space where there is no colour, no seasons, no fragrance and with just a glimmer of hope that someday you will get your life back. And that hope made me find my way here. Someone told me that there were a few women who found their lost love here.”

“Yes, some women did….,” Urshia sounded disappointed though, with the melody of the Kashmiri song playing in the background from her weathered player. Almost instantly, she picked her mood, “It’s a beautiful silver necklace you are wearing. I haven’t seen you wear it before.”

“Yes…I actually wore it to show it to you.” Saffiya excitedly held the necklace in her hand and flaunted it “this is MY last gift.” As her eyes wandered to the farthest that she could see, she continued, “I hope I manage to get more gifts again.”

“Have faith.” Urshia consoled, squeezing her hand in solidarity. No wonder she understood the pain of losing and being lost.

The melody in the background continued.

“You seem to love your henna smeared hands,” Saffiya smiled as she sat herself down beside Urshia, who was already seated at the same spot with her music player in tow, playing the same song yet again…

Baetti naye, dooryei

Chuon zaraay


{I am also far from you

I am your soulmate

Oh my beloved}

“Yes, of course! The colour never seems to leave my palms,” she responded. With a faint smile playing on her lips, she happily placed her hands in Saffiya’s and closed her eyes briefly in prayer.

“What is that about?” Saffiya inquired.

“Just a prayer,” Urshia’s hand moved from her palm to cup her cheek, “…wishes for you, my dear. Hope your heart heals soon.”

Both women sat quietly for a long time, listening to the melody from the player, pleased that the wounds, even though not healed, were soothed by the balm of a friendly prayer. Saffiya was pleased that she had a friend, her zuva, in Urshia to help her sail through the most difficult time of her life.

Kya kar hove thaam



{what should I do now, you have shown me

Each and everything

Oh my beloved}

“Urshia, have you ever been disillusioned with our plight? Ever felt that the purpose of life is in a lurk, just like your life?” Saffiya’s intense questions did not dissuade Urshia. She replied with her characteristic smile, “my purpose is to help you. If I can do that, I would not be disillusioned with my plight.”

Saffiya smiled as she got up to leave, “thank you, my zuva. You seem to have gained a whole lot of wisdom at such a young age.” She raised her palms close to her face, “I can smell your henna on my hands.”

“It’s for you to keep.” Urshia bid her off for the day. Saffiya smiled her way back home, smelling her hands that had almost forgotten its fragrance and colour.

“Urshia!! I never believed in miracles before, but my payers and your prayers have been answered. I can wear colour now, I can wear henna without fear, I can dance, and I can smile without a worry.” Saffiya was on the seventh heaven this evening. Suddenly she felt a guilt pang for having exhibited her shameless delight in front of someone who had not yet got her reason for such immense joy.

Urshia smiled in return, regardless, “I told you that your wait will be over soon.”

“It is all because of your dua, your prayers,” Saffiya said cheerfully kissing her hands incessantly. Urshia was just pleased to see her friend the happiest, ever since they had met two months ago.

“I may not come here every day, Urshia. But I will come sometimes to meet you,” a sudden sadness found its way in her voice.

“Don’t worry about me, my friend. I will be fine.” Urshia assured, holding her player in her lap.

“You can come and meet us, sometime.” Saffiya hoped that her friend would accept her invitation to her home.

“This is where I belong, my zuva. Whenever you wish to see me, you can come and meet me here.”

“Yes, I will do that,” Saffiya promised, as she got up to leave. As an afterthought, she said, “But what if one day your prayers are answered for yourself and you no longer come here? Where can I find you then?”

“Don’t worry… if for the last 32 years my prayers have not been answered, they won’t anymore…” Urshia said smiling.

“32 years!!” Saffiya could not contain the shock. The young woman that she had befriended for the last two months had been waiting here for the last 32 years! At the same spot, listening to soulful melodies from a rickety two-in-one cassette player, with henna coloured hands, this woman that she had known just briefly, but had bonded like a soulmate, had been on a ‘pause’ for so many years!

She could not believe what she had just heard. She buried her face in her hands, the fragrance of henna fresh on her palms. Hoping that this was just a dream, she raised her head to look at Urshia, who had by now started to disappear in the woods, the song from her player wafting in the winter breeze…

Sharmand karthas


Kaymi haal yi zoon

Khand chaini

Ghach so

Lajj so daraeye


{You have embarrassed me,

O my sun

You don’t know what I am going through

Your pieces,

I cherish them,

Waiting for you on my door,

Oh, my beloved…}

 Author’s note: Wazul Jhelum is my attempt at bringing out the pain of ‘half-widows’ of Kashmir.

The term ‘half widows’ refers to those victims whose husbands have disappeared and their whereabouts are unknown, as they have been victims of enforced disappearances. They cannot, however, be presumed dead even though they might actually be dead. Half-widows of Kashmir live in a grey zone; they can neither remarry nor lay a claim on the properties of their husbands. There is an overlay of misery and depredations that visits half-widows. Often times, they are neither educated nor economically empowered to rebuild their lives. Though undocumented, there are approximately over 2500 ‘half-widows’ alive in Kashmir. (Source: Kashmir Reader)

Image credits Mike Prince, via Flickr; used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license for representational purposes only
First published here.

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