On the lane outside, paramilitary men stand armed with automatic rifles and pellet guns. Inside, Ahsan Niyaz prepares for his forthcoming Class X Board exams.
With schools and colleges across Kashmir shut for close to three months after the July 8 killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, the Jammu and Kashmir State Board of School Education has rescheduled the annual Class 10 and 12 exams in Kashmir from October to the second week of November. That leaves Ahsan, 16, with less than 45 days to prepare for his first Board exam: science on November 15.
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A week before the exams were announced, Ahsan’s father Niyaz Ahmad Dar, a veterinarian in Samboora village of Kashmir’s Pulwama district, decided to temporarily move him to his maternal uncle’s home in Srinagar. Their village is in south Kashmir, the epicentre of the current protests, which continues to simmer, and Ahsan’s father wanted him out of there. “My father wanted me to study in a relatively calmer place,” he says. Ahsan, a student of Delhi Modern Public School in Pampore, will return to Pulwama just before the exams.
For the last 15 days, Ahsan has been spending his days in a room on the first floor of his uncle’s home at Kawa Mohalla in Khanyar, a locality in old Srinagar. In a room up a flight of stairs leading from the living room, Ahsan sits on the carpeted floor surrounded by his books, the suitcase that he brought from home serving as his study table. Since he came to Srinagar, he has been in this room all day and night, often bringing his food up to eat.
It’s 6 am and Ahsan has already been up 30 minutes. After a hot cup of salty tea, he has settled down with his social science — history, geography and civics — books. He sits crosslegged on the floor, gently rocking back and forth as he reads from the textbook perched on the suitcase.
“History is a tough subject and needs a fresh mind. So I usually study the subject in the morning,” he says. The 16-year-old’s knowledge of history and civics is informed by the ground realities of Kashmir. “The book says India is a federal country, but is it?” he asks. “Where is the democracy they write about? I haven’t seen it anywhere in Kashmir.”
Ahsan says his school in Pulwama had only completed 50 per cent of the syllabus when the protests started. His father then arranged for a private tutor to teach him science and mathematics and he is now banking on what he learnt in those classes.
“I studied Urdu and English by myself, but I am worried about the practical exams. We haven’t done any practicals in the science subjects; I don’t know what we are going to do in the exams. I don’t want to do badly in science as that’s my favourite subject,” he says, adding that he hopes to be an aeronautical engineer some day.
Ahsan arrived at his uncle’s home on September 17. To compensate for the time lost during the last three months, his uncle, a shopkeeper, enrolled him in a private tuition centre nearby. The classes are held for three hours every day, a subject a day. “It’s physics today,” he says, stealing a quick look at his watch.
It’s 8.55 am and Ahsan has to reach the tuition centre at 9 am. He picks up his backpack and sprints down the stairs. On the street outside, the tension is palpable. Ahsan, though, appears calm: hands in his pockets, he walks past the paramilitary personnel, past the graffiti on compound walls and shop shutters that read, “We Want Freedom” and “Go India Go Back”.
Freedom is a fraught subject in Kashmir, more so for a 16-year-old whose movements have been severely restricted — first by the forces on the road and now the exams. Both his uncle and father have strictly forbidden him from leaving the house. No TV or sports either. His Nokia phone is the only distraction he is allowed, but with the government suspending outgoing calls on pre-paid connections, there is little he can do with it, except hope for his mother or younger brother to call. The walk to the tuition centre is the only time he gets to step outside his uncle’s home.
“Our earlier visits to Srinagar have never been this tense. This time, when we decided to come, my father said we would have to leave home before sunrise, before the protesters and the security personnel came out,” he says.
It’s 9 am and Ahsan joins a group of boys huddled outside the tuition centre, discussing politics. Mohammad Junaid, 16, says, “Even if we assume things are going to be normal once again, what about those who have been hit by pellets and have lost their vision? Will they ever get justice?” By now, Ahsan looks visibly agitated.
He has his reasons. On July 9, Tabish Rafiq, his classmate in the Pulwama school, was hit by pellets in both the
eyes. “Tabish will never be able to see with his right eye and there has been some loss of vision in his left eye,” says Ahsan. “I couldn’t go to meet him; the CRPF men didn’t allow me. I only read about him in the newspaper,” he says.
Back at his uncle’s home after the three-hour tuition session, Ahsan eats his lunch from a bowl — rice and vegetables.
It’s now 1.30 pm and Ahsan starts practising mathematics. His aunt Gulshana, who has done her Master’s in maths and teaches at a private school, has set him a test paper that he will have to begin solving at 6 pm.
“Maths doesn’t need cramming so afternoons are the best time to practise the subject. If it had been social science, Urdu or English, I would have dozed off,” he says.
By the time he is done with his maths paper, it’s 8 pm and Ahsan starts with his science subjects — physics, chemistry and biology.
On most days, he says, his mind drifts, especially when he hears chants of azadi. When that happens, he simply
shuts the window and comes back to his books.
“Our teacher has told us not to think about what is happening on the streets and focus on studies. But that’s
difficult,” he says.
Back home, he would read Greater Kashmir, the English newspaper his father subscribes to, and “feel sad about all that’s happening”.
Now, he doesn’t read papers that regularly — all he worries about are his exams. “I was stunned when I heard about the date sheet. How can they hold exams in these circumstances, when we haven’t even completed our syllabus?” he says.
He looks at his watch – it’s 9 pm, time for dinner. He will now study for about an hour and a half before hitting the bed. “I am confident I will complete my syllabus, but I am a bit nervous because it is the first time that I am writing my Boards,” he says.