Most ophthalmologists would have a heart attack if you told them how the frail 70-year–old Saja Begum treats people with foreign objects lodged in their eyes: with her thumbs and the corner of her scarf.
But if you ask the people in Kashmir whose children have been blinded by pellets, her way of ‘healing’ makes her a virtual saint.
It all began about 25 years ago, when her father appeared to her in a dream after his death. “He offered me a fistful of debris and told me to keep it till I died,” she recalls. For several weeks, Saja Begum wondered what her dream meant, until one evening, a man from a nearby town came running to her neighbourhood, screaming, “Get this splinter out of my eye!”
The screams drew people onto the street where they tried to help Hamid Khaar. But no matter how thoroughly they checked, they couldn’t find anything. Saja Begum asked the frantic relatives to move aside. “I placed my thumbs on either side of Khaar’s left eye and within seconds I felt an alien object between them. Slowly and steadily I worked it down. Once it reached the space between his eyelids I pulled my headscarf off and used it to take it out.”
And since then, Saja Begum has been offering ‘eye-care services’ from the veranda of her single-storey house in Beerwah, a postcard pretty town in Budgam. She has no training and no education but miraculously, just with her thumbs and the edge of her scarf, she has been able to find the offending particles in people’s eyes that doctors cannot.
Her skill took on new urgency in 2016 when Kashmir experienced a summer of hell after the popular Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed. The uprising that followed left scores of young people and children blinded when police and paramilitary attacked pro-freedom protests with pellet guns. The Kashmir Media Service says at least 1,314 people have been blinded.
In the 18 months that followed, several families went to Saja Begum. “Her heart ached to see the victims’ eyes,” says her husband, Sanaullah Sheikh. “Although she took the pellets out, once she saw the deep gouges, Saja felt helpless and refused to see any more patients.”
A spiritual healer
Kashmir is known as the valley of saints and has a rich past of spirituality. According to folklore, prior to or after their deaths, Kashmiri saints passed on their spiritual teachings and powers to a chosen follower.
Sheikh says his father-in-law, Ghulam Qadir Wani, was a spiritual person too and had pledged his loyalty to a renowned saint locally known as Sofi Rangar. “I believe Saja was chosen by God to serve mankind,” he said. “After Saja took out the splinter from Hamid Khaar’s eye, news spread and people from other districts and states started coming for cures too.”
Sheikh says that Saja Begum has cured people who could not be helped by eye specialists in Jammu and Kashmir.
Once the family was eating lunch when a group of people from Srinagar’s Habbakadal came to be seen by Saja Begum. “One of the members of the group had a severely swollen eye,” recalls Sheikh. “He had gone to almost every hospital in Kashmir and one in Chandigarh. The doctors had done several x-rays and other tests but failed to detect any alien object in his eye.”
But when Saja Begum touched his eye, it took her just a few seconds to remove a shard. “The stone had accumulated a layer of fat on it.”
People say they have witnessed many cases that convince them that Saja Begum was indeed chosen to serve the people. “Saja does what the latest machines, tests and other equipment fail to,” says one of them, Sara. “We don’t know what and how she does it. All of us believe that it is a secret between God and her.”
Saja Begum’s patients come at all hours. “A strange thing about [this situation] is whenever she begins to eat her meals someone arrives and she has to leave her food and see the patient. It always happens. This is a test from God demanding that she serves mankind,” says her husband.
The one that got away
But Saja Begum is not infallible. Six years ago, she found a person she couldn’t help – her own son Mohammmad Ayoub. He is in his late 30s but is completely blind.
“One night before dawn I had a headache in the left side of my head,” Ayoub says. “I also felt some pain in my left eye.” He went for his morning prayers to the mosque and when he returned he asked his mother to check. Saja found nothing but said there seemed to be the effect of some kind of ‘intoxication’.
Ayoub went to an ophthalmologist who found nothing suspicious. He followed the course of medicines prescribed to him but suddenly his left pupil dilated and its colour changed. He went to the Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science in Bemina, Srinagar where he had more tests and more medicine.
“I went back after just three days because I felt some blurriness in my left eye,” he recalls. The doctors repeated the same procedure.
Within 15 days, the blurriness was gone but the real disaster struck on the 28th day of the course. It started with a headache and within an hour the vision in his left eye was gone.
After major surgery and multiple visits to doctors, Ayoub’s doctors insisted on treating his right eye before he lost vision in that too. “On February 23 or 24 I lost vision in the right eye just like a dying battery.”
“All I can do is to pray from him,” says Saja Begum. “My father handed me a fistful of debris and till today I’ve been collecting it from people’s eyes.”