The haunting image of 15-year-old Insha Mushtaq Lone, her eyes covered with cotton and the rest of her face impaled by pellets, became in many ways the representative image of the violence Kashmir last year.
Hundreds, like Insha, were permanently blinded after protests broke out across the Valley following the death of militant Burhan Wani, a commander of terror outfit Hizbul Mujahideen, in an encounter with security forces on July 8 last year.
But the tragedy of every other pellet injury victim seemed to pale in comparison to what Insha had suffered. The X-ray image of her skull showed hundreds of pellets lodged deep inside her eyes, nose, jaws and throat.
She underwent six surgeries but her eyesight, lost due to ruptured retina and optic nerve, could not be recovered. On the first death anniversary of militant Burhan Wani, News18 speaks to Insha.
Insha, The Fast Bowler
She begins by talking about her love for cricket and about the wickets she’s taken. She lets out a little chuckle while claiming to be an outstanding bowler. I laugh along. In a few minutes, she abruptly stops.
“I don’t play anymore though. I can’t, you see,” she tells me.
But her blindness hasn’t stopped her from following her favourite game. And while hearing the commentators describe the action on ground, she feels that she’s being directly addressed.
“It’s like they are talking to me.”
Insha says she was quite disappointed to hear how India lost wickets to Pakistan in the big run chase during the Champion’s Trophy final. “India batted horribly,” she says.
She was at her home in Sedav village in south Kashmir’s Shopian district when an array of pellets from close range blinded her on July 11, 2016.
Tell me one reason why the police shot at me, asks Insha. (Photo: Abid Bhat)
Sedav is ‘picture postcard’ beautiful owing to the rich landscape. But this is also the spot which has seen a lot of agitation and violence. Not very far from here, Burhan Wani was born and only a few kilometers away the militant was shot dead.
“My mother, aunt and my cousin sister were also there with me. I was studying and just talking to everyone when I heard loud noises outside. I waited for the noises to subside, only then did I open the window,” she says. Tell me one reason why the police shot at me, she asks.
Insha, The Family Darling
Her younger brother, just 13 then, had asked her if she wanted his eyes. Her parents, Afroza and Mushtaq, assured Insha that they would sell the house if it came to that, but would get Insha her eyes again.
She remembers hearing them telling the doctors in Srinagar (where she was initially taken) that they would take her anywhere in the world to bring her eyesight back.
Insha underwent skull surgeries in New Delhi, after which she was taken to Mumbai. Doctors, in March this year, finally told her she will never see again.
The permanent injury to his daughter has made Mushtaq a very anxious father. (Photo: Abid Bhat)
Despite the struggle, her family made sure that she never lost hope. She seethes with anger while recounting the moments in which she lost her eyesight.
“Chhodo…. I get angry thinking about it. Tell me, how old are you?” she asks me, quickly changing the topic. I tell her that I am around 10 years older than her. In her characteristic chuckle, she tells me I am quite old, “older than her favourite cousin sister”.
Bilkeesa is Insha’s favourite cousin, her confidante and best friend, and they take walks together every once in a while where Bilkeesa tries to describe to Insha the world around them.
After all, Insha can’t walk around by herself now. That’s one thing she sorely misses. Insha loved walking. Her favourite spots being the backyard around the house and the lane behind her school canteen.
Every time I go to the school, I realise how far behind I am…. I can’t read my books. It’s infuriating
“After lunch, my friends and I used to sit there and just talk. No teacher used to come there. It’s still my favourite spot,” she tells me.
The other thing she misses is seeing her toys — her teddy bear and dolls.
Apart from Bilkeesa, Insha’s mother Afroza has been her biggest support. Afroza wakes her up for namaz at 6 in the morning, makes her morning tea, helps her bathe, dresses her up, braids her hair and helps her eat. She has been Insha’s biggest support system in the past one year.
Insha, The Fiercely Independent Teen
“I remember hearing my mother crying when I fell in the kitchen trying to walk by myself,” Insha tells me. But she is just 15 years old. How could she be expected to sit all day at one place?
“Right after I had returned from hospital, I tried walking on my own. I was feeling so restless sitting in my room all day. So after just a few steps, I stumbled and fell down. My mother scolded me for being too adventurous. But then, she didn’t ask me to stop walking. She told me to take it one step at a time.” And that’s what Insha’s been doing since.
Insha is proud that she can do some activity on her own now. “I now know where my clothes are kept. I know where my books are. I will take time, but I can get to these things,” Insha assures me.
Being Insha now also entails a struggle for private space. She became a mini celebrity in Kashmir soon after photos of her pellet riddle face and X-ray went viral on internet. Since that day she’s had to deal with a steady stream of visitors. Many of them complete strangers.
The X-ray image of her skull showed hundreds of pellets lodged deep inside her eyes, nose, jaws and throat.
But this means nothing to her. “No matter who says what, nobody will understand my struggle,” she says. The biggest one being her fight to realise her dream — becoming a doctor.
Insha, The Difficult and Intelligent Student
Insha has been to school for hardly 10 days since she lost her eyesight as a family member has to accompanying her each time. Also, schools in the Valley remained closed for six out of every 10 working days last year due to constant agitations and curfew.
At the school, her friends tell her when the teacher walks in, who is talking to whom, and, of course, who’s winning the school cricket match.
“Every time I go to the school, I realise how far behind I am from my colleagues. I can’t read my books or see what the teacher is writing on the blackboard. It’s infuriating,” she says.
Her anger and disappointment at not being able to study at school got her family to convince her to take supplementary private classes at home. Three teachers, Muzaffar, Ashraf and Nayeem now come and teach her. Muzaffar teaches her Braille, the other two read out her course books to her.
Braille, she says, has been the most difficult for her to grasp. But Muzaffar also happens to be her favourite teacher. “I have learnt A-Z in Braille. It’s difficult for me but sir makes it easier. All my teachers are good, but Muzaffar sir is very patient with me,” she adds.
Insha's biggest fight now is to realise her dream — becoming a doctor. (Photo: Abid Bhat)
Coming to terms with her handicap was the most difficult bit in her education, said her teacher Muzaffar. “Insha is fiercely independent. For two days, I tried to warm her up to the idea of studying Braille. But she refused. She said she would write like a normal student, but when she started missing her lines, I flatly had to refuse her request and force her to learn Braille. Even today, she sometimes decides to write her lessons by hand. But she’s quite intelligent as well,” Muzaffar says.
Science is her favourite subject. “Rest of the subjects I will just pass,” she says and suddenly moves on to Bilkeesa. “She asks me all the time how my preparations are going. My Class 10 exams are in October. Don’t you think I have time to ace it?” she asks.
Insha, Down But Not Out
“Do you know she was the topper of her school? I want her to excel. She will get a writer for her exams who will take down everything she says. I know Insha will excel,” says her father. The permanent injury to his daughter has made Mushtaq a very anxious father.
“I can’t undo it. I can only try and make the best of whatever little she has to look forward to. Thankfully my other children, the two boys, understand what their sister is going through. But with the violence continuing to unfold even a year later, I am always scared of letting them out of my sight,” he says.
It’s quite late in the night now, and Insha is feeling quite hungry and sleepy. Before ending the conversation she talks about her favourite things — rain and songs — with her usual fickle-mindedness.
“I love it when it rains, but not when it starts flooding too. I don’t know how it is now, but I’m sure it’s pretty. I rush to my window whenever it starts to rain,” she tells me as she bursts into an impromptu, unexpected song.It’s her favourite: “Naani teri morni ko mor le gaye, baaki jo bacha tha kaale chor le gaye...”