[15 August, 1947. Evening, there is silence all around. The stage is dimly lit, and music can be heard from a distance. The song “Jhelum” is playing. As the music gets louder, there is more light onstage. There is a chair on which a girl is seated. 18 or 19 years old, she is wearing her worn-out school uniform. She is reading a book and she is focused on the pages of the book. As more light falls upon her, she looks up from her book.]
I used to often ask them, the question to which I always knew the answer. In the hope that, one day, their answer would be different, the truth. Yes, what did you think, I would simply accept their lies? (laughs lightly) I am no more a child, all of us grew up. We had to grow up. Who else could save this country? If not me, not you… so, where was I now? Yes, the question which they avoided answering. I was a child then, innocent and unaware even. Or so they believed, that this was their Zoya who only excelled at asking questions. Well, they underestimated her greatly, didn’t they? She was capable of so much more. If nobody was willing to answer her questions, she would look for answers herself. She would go anywhere in quest of them, to any extent, to find the answers to her questions, to identify, to dig them up, to face them. Such was their daughter, nobody could stop her for 17 years. Who would dare to stop her today? (she begins to hum the song softly, returns her gaze to the book in her hand)
I asked ammi this question the first time. “Ammi, what does my name mean? Why did you decide to call me Zoya?” Ammi didn’t respond. She had been avoiding me for a while then, for no apparent reason. Maybe, maybe, it was a good thing that some things were kept secret. That, until now, secrets were kept from me. Because I used to eavesdrop on all their conversations. What did you think, that at night, I would fall asleep as soon as the bulb died out, like Afzal and Faizan did? That, I would give in to the temptation of sleep? (pause) Abbu had his suspicions, he would observe me carefully. Early in the morning, during breakfast, in the evening even as he listened to the news on the radio and sometimes, in my dreams, he stood close to me and monitored my every breath. (she begins to sing a few sentences of the song, lost in her thoughts) Several nights, I would peep through the gap between the door and the wall and overhear their conversations. There were some moments, when I would hold my breath to hear ammi’s voice. She would cry, she wept. In those days, when we had gotten accustomed to hearing more curses than greetings, when Faizan would ask me if today, his friend Lalit— who had once been his best friend— would team up with his friends and throw stones over our wall. And Afzal? Afzal took after ammi completely. Each night, he would whisper stories to his pillow as he cried himself to sleep. We had all been affected, and the most interesting thing was this: we all thought we were hiding our own little secrets, that we were being brave, that we were protecting everyone else.
We were fighting an inner war, one against ourselves and for ourselves.
(the music can be heard more distinctly, Zoya turns her gaze towards her book and reads out)
“Abbu, can I ask you something? Will you answer me truthfully?”
“Not now, Zoya. Nehru ji will be addressing the Kashmir conflict any time now. Let me focus on this, we might have to vacate this house and this town in two to three days. Go somewhere far away. Go now, ammi needs your support during such tough times. Go!”
Lies. One lie after another, abbu. Two days, three days, 10 days, 1 month, 2 years and now, it’s been 7 years. We are so far away from home, but you? You are right here, despite all of this. Abbu, they humiliated you. Why don’t you accept that you are wounded? The cure to your wounds was always in front of you, lingering around you. And yet, you overlooked her, pretended to not see her even as you kept your gaze fixated on her. I could have healed all your wounds, abbu. I did everything to prove this to you.
I want to heal Kashmir and her wounds. To extinguish the fire around us, I set myself on fire. Everything is burning, abbu, everything is getting destroyed. That house, those memories, our family, ammi. And you. You too, abbu.
Why are you still trying to save me?
I couldn’t stand it any longer, I could not stand to see you perish. Which is why I decided to sacrifice myself. For you, for us, for this country’s future.
(she gets up from the chair, drops the book on the ground. Putting her arms forward)
This is not one of your dreams, abbu. Do you see, the flames of this fire have swallowed me, nothing remains of me. When all of this ends, there will remain no traces of me. In place of my body, only ash will remain.
Ammi, abbu, you would tell me that my name has only one meaning: she who is alive, who shall be immortal. It was a lie. To save you, I sacrificed myself. For this country, for your and my Kashmir, Zoya had to die.
The flame of Kashmir now lives within me.
Will anyone dare to extinguish it?