On World Photographer’s Day, Xuhaib Maqbool, a 30 year old Kashmiri photojournalist posted a picture of his broken camera and wished himself on Facebook. His short post wrapped in intense pain, reads, “Let me wish myself, Happy Photographer’s Day”. I paused, took a long breath. A sense of guilt slowly engulfed me, for, I could not fullfill a promise I made to myself after meeting this well known photo journalist from the valley, whose photographs found way to the prestigious National Geographic website.
It was snowing when I first met Maqbool, a radio jockey turned photojournalist at his Rainawari residence. The day is still afresh in memory, for, it was the first snow of my life. Wading through blanket of snow, I reached his house situated in a narrow street. Maqbool, a tall muscular handsome man wearing dark glasses welcomed me with a pleasant smile and lead me to his room in the first floor of his house. Standing at the treshhold of a dark room, he said, “Welcome to my Dark Room”. While trying to adjust to the darkness in the room, he pulled the curtains apart and sunlight barged into that small bedroom. It’s walls were painted in black. I noticed, the curtains are also black in colour. While his sister served piping hot tea from a beautiful samovar, I settled down on a red Kashmiri carpet to listen to a story, a story that changed Maqbool’s life, the story behind The Dark Room.
Sipping hot tea, I watched the white soft fluffy snow descending from the sky and stealthily settling on the ground. Snow flakes resembled tiny pieces of sky. Maqbool boarded a train down the memory lane. Meanwhile, the hot tea offered me a little respite from the chilling temprature. “September 4, 2016, the fateful day that turned my life upside down started off as any other day in the life of a photojournalist. I was covering a protest for The Legitimate, a weekly news magazine from Kashmir”, said Maqbool, cutting short my reverie . Curfew and protests are a way of Kashmiri life. Around 5.30 in the evening, Maqbool was covering a protest near his house, when one of the policemen on duty walked straight towards him and sprayed pellets all over his body, including his face, without any provocation, from the closest range possible. “Mostly journalists cover protests from police side, but on that day I was clicking pictures from the stone pelter’s side. But, when the gun trotting policemen walked towards me, I raised my camera and identity card and said Press. As if I had asked him to fire, he pressed the trigger and bathed me and my camera in pellets”, recollected Maqbool. Life is so vulnerable, it changes in a matter of second.
As the adage goes, the more you try to forget, the more you remember. That moment is still so vivid in his memory. “I heard a loud noise and when I looked around, I saw blurred, broken images. I looked at my camera. I saw broken images. It was hard to differentiate, if it was my eyes or the camera that was broken. Moments later, I realised the presence of a warm fluid, running profusely down my right eye. With a shudder, I sensed it was blood and my eyes were hit by pellets. I looked down, I saw blood oozing from all over my body. Being a journalist, who had photographed many pellet victims, I do not have the right to collapse. I tried to hold on. Seconds later, I realised my body losing balance”, Maqbool recalled those worst moments for the umpteenth time. The narration, the choice of words, the pauses, his gestures, everything hurt some where deep inside me. It was for this reason, at times, I hate this profession, a profession forcing people to recollect memories they desperately try to forget and bury in some of the deepest corners of their hearts. Also, it was one of those rare moments, where a character refuse to remain just a story.
Maqbool was taken to Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital, Srinagar. A primary surgery was performed to remove one of the two pellets that hit his eye. Out of the two pellets which had entered his eye tearing the eyelid, one had even torn the cornea and went straight into the eye globe. It damaged the eye fluid. The retina was saved. The next few days were the days of surgeries and doctors removed glass and metal parts from his eye.
Back from hospital, his life changed topsy turvy. “The post surgery was traumatic. Excruciating pain in the eye and body was too much to handle. I thought I was dying ”, said Maqbool. Restrictions after the surgery made things worse for him. “I was restricted from moving my head, lean down or walk. It was to stabilise and position my retina in place. It hurt in and out. Mental trauma was unfathomable”, said Maqbool. The worst pain was the pain when the eye met sunlight. “Being a cameraperson, I loved playing with light. I never thought sunlight could hurt me. That was the beginning of yet another shock”, he added.
It was then the Dark Room was created. While the black paint gobbled up the brightness from the walls, black curtains replaced the floral bright ones. His family brainstormed on how to block the unruly sun from peeping into Maqbool’s room. The last thing was to cover the right frame of his googles with sunblock film. To an extent, they succeeded in keeping the sun at bay. That hide and seek with the light went on for for months. Everything took a heavy toll on Maqbool’s health, mentally and physically.
On January 3, 2017, four months into the mishap, while I was distracted by a huge sheet of snow that slid down the roof of a neighbouring house, Maqbool continued, “I feel better. The sun rays are a little kind to me now. I started moving around. After months, today I opened these windows to see the snow”, he continued. Snow is always a photographer’s delight. “Knowing my love for snow, this morning, my mother shouted from down stairs to come down with the camera and click pictures. Hearing that, my hands went towards the camera, which I keep always by my side. Suddenly, a moment of delight transformed into despair, for myself and my mother”, he said holding his broken camera. Maqbool had not repaired his camera. He does not want to. “These days when I wake up, I see my broken camera, medicines, eye drops and I feel terrible. I have the pellet which was removed from my eye. I shall use it as a locket in one of the chains. The broken camera, pellets and the bloodstained white T shirt are all some painful memories that I don’t want to part with”, he added. While his focus is to remove the pellets from the eye and to regain his eye sight, he often forgets about the 200 odd pellets stuck all over his body. And, I painfully realised that the black spot that I confused for a big mole on his nose bridge is one of the many pellets that escaped the gun of that unknown soldier. “I believe I was targeted”, he said.
When I made up my mind to write Maqbool’s story, I dialled his number. But, no one answered my call. An hour later, Maqbool returned the call and his sleepy voice said the previous night was as usual sleepless and he was tired. He talked about his current health situation. Both the pellets were removed from his eye. More surgeries are lined up to remove fluid from the eye. “I have not regained my sight fully. I still see blurred images. Sleep evades me most nights”, he continued over phone. Maqbool purchased a new camera and tried to click pictures. “When I start to click, the image of a soldier with a gun, keep coming. The pain and trauma revisits each time and I can’t work”, he said. Amidst all this misery, he does not hold any grudge to that soldier who took away the light from his eyes. The only thing he wants to ask him, if he ever gets to meet him is, “Why did you do this to me?”. “My life is like a broken camera. Still, I believe, there is light at the end of tunnel”, he hung up.
Pellet guns are used as a crowd control method by the police and security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, since Burhan Wani uprising in July 2016. Xuhaib Makbool is one among the 1200 partially blinded victims in the state according to a recent government survey. 7 are said to be fully blinded. There is debate over the exact figures of pellet victims since many of the victims fearing police action left the state for treatment.