Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Inside of a Cup

Precisely at the moment I lost it, it became precious. Like lost lyrics to the songs which you remembered by heart once.

There was no bread to be had, no czochwour and no company. Srinagar was a cool breezy house where afternoon echoed in through open doors. Empty. There was some nun chai, I was sure. But I didn't know how to make it. It was something that was already at home, waiting to be heated and had.

I let the nun chai brew. A bit hesitatingly, not sure if this is the right way. Something so famously complicated couldn't have such a simple beginning. Or could it? The dried crisp leaves danced in the boiling water. It needs to be boiled, for hours and hours, of that I was sure. In the old days, when electricity was really poor in Srinagar and the voltages fluctuated wildly, nun chai was prepared in a thick bottomed vessel, four hours together on a electric heater. That changed with times. When families used to be large and people had too much time and, often too many servants, the samavars were heated in the morning and would brew the nun chai perfectly for hours before serving. Of course, the pot bellied copper samavars are the most authentic way to have nun chai.

But not today. Not for me. The tea lacked colour. And even though the aroma was the same nostalgic fragrance which at once reminded me of my mother's blue winter shawl the colour was absent. I was missing the soda, phol, sodium bicarbonate. The magic ingredient which draws out all the flavour and colour from the tea leaves. Of course, it does that slowly too. The tea bubbled a little as the powder dissolved into it and then died. The electric induction cooker did its usual hum and the tea went back to boiling just as it was.Nun chai draws from the slow humdrum life of Kashmir, taking patience and labour to get the work done. Though, in case of nun chai as I found out, there isn't much work involved at all.

Fifteen minutes.

"Friends" was playing on the television and that was perhaps why I lost track of time. And perhaps because I was keeping myself company, I also noticed how throughout the seasons of Friends it is Monica with her giving nature who binds the friends together. How her fridge was always stocked up for friends to arrive at all hours and feel at home.

Half and hour, may be. I had lost count.

The afternoon dropped temperatures. Srinagar was now a million miles away. It was a memory written on the tea stains on the inside of a cup. It was the pleasant aroma of the inside of my mother's shawl on an autumn afternoon.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XXVII

There was a fire on the hills.

The stranger had appeared again amidst us. No one noticed the stranger, as people never do. He was waiting at the bus stand in a queue of people. It was hot, the heat drawing out like a centipede on his neck where perspiration trickled. He looked straight ahead. Behind him somebody was laughing wildly into a phone, with such abandon as if there was nothing wrong with the world. His world may be, how would the stranger know?

The bus stand was slowly filling  up. People came and went. Not a single familiar face. The stranger was glad for such things at times. It was an odd relationship with the city: there were no expectations, no pretences and so few disappointments. Both of them hated each other with the same intensity.

Tonight there is nobody. Just the stranger and a few waiters waiting for him to go away. The food is tasteless, like always. And the stranger is starving.

Up in the mountains, there is a fire. The ovens are burning bright and there is a feast laid out for no body in particular. The stranger is aware of it. Acutely, as he reminds his starving mind. He completes his food, puts down his fork, pays the cash to the waiter waiting with the bill and leaves.

The mountains are a pretty place to be in. The stranger considers his mind and the edges he has been drawn to. A draft brings the smoke of the fire to him. They must be burning roses up there. It smells pleasant, singed roses, their colour bleeding into fuel and their fragrance wafting in the fumes. Do they do that? To make the valleys fragrant. There are no breezes here, its all smoke and unpleasant.

The next bus is ten minutes delayed. The man on the phone is still talking.

Quietly he boards the bus and leaves. The city wails behind him. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

"Shall we?"

I had no idea what lovers in Kashmir did in winters, when it snowed and everything was cold and wet and hard. Till Spring came and moods turned. This year the storm died somewhere in the mod of April. It is becoming an annual thing now. Winds. Rain in March. The tulips being washed away. The Botanical Gardens must be a sad place, despite the rains and lovers.  But the rains will stop, punctually before the almonds bloom. Like always. It’s a relief Nature grants, the last one before summers.

I mean just look at it! Winters – of jackets, a couple of sweaters, gloves and red noses. Of walking on wet leaves. The smoke from street hawkers’ stalls. Cold and cough. And frozen pipes.

Love is a pointless emotion. I am so convinced of it at this point that in my memory of that spring all the blossoms of Badamvaer have been blown away. He had told me so, many times. But that was too many months ago. Years, even. It was spring and we were young and bored with Kashmir’s normal monotony. 

But that was 2008 and it was all about to change.

It lasted exactly a season. The next season we spent in curfew.

I turn to his memory of looking out of the gazebo in Botanical Gardens. In my mind he is always staring at the almond blossoms. Always smiling. The fading sunlight glinting off his eyes. He is  not interested in me. Not more than I am interested in the blossoms. Suddenly I laugh. This foolishness – of having found a person and imagining falling in love. Its all movie stuff. Until its real and then it doesn’t happen in Botanical Gardens, of that also I am sure.

I turn to his memory and ask, “Will you dance with me?”

.... to be continued....

Friday, May 16, 2014

Homage to Faiz - Agha Shahid Ali

“You are welcome to make your
adaptations of my poems.”
You wrote this from Beirut, two years before
the Sabra-Shatila massacres. That
city’s refugee-air was open, torn
by jets and the voices of reporters. As
always you were witness to “rains of stones,”
though you were away from Pakistan, from
the laws of home which said that the hands of
thieves would be surgically amputated.
But the subcontinent always spoke to
you: in Ghalib’s Urdu, and sometimes through
the old masters who sang of twilight but
didn’t live, like Ghalib, to see the wind
rip the collars of the dawn: the summer
of 1857, the trees of
Delhi became scaffolds: 30,000
men were hanged. Wherever you were, Faiz, that
language spoke to you; and when you heard it,
you were alone—in Tunis, Beirut,
London, or Moscow. Those poets’ laments
concealed, as yours revealed, the sorrows of
a broken time. You knew Ghalib was right:
blood musn’t merely follow routine, musn’t
just flow as the veins’ uninterrupted
river. Sometimes it must flood the eyes,
surprise them by being clear as water.
I didn’t listen when my father
recited your poems to us by
heart. What could it mean to a boy
that you had redefined the cruel
beloved, that figure who already
was Friend, Woman, God? In your hands
she was Revolution. You gave
her silver hands, her lips were red.
Impoverished lovers waited all
night every night, but she
remained only a glimpse behind
light. When I learned of her I was
no longer a boy, and Urdu
a silhouette traced by
the voices of singers, by
Begum Akhtar who wove your couplets
into ragas: both language and music
were sharpened. I listened:
and you became, like memory,
necessary. Dast-e-Saba,
I said to myself. And quietly
the wind opened its palms: I read
there of the night: the secrets
of lovers, the secrets of prisons.
When you permitted my hands to turn to
stone, as must happen to a translator’s
hands, I thought of you writing Zindan-Nama
on prison-walls, on cigarette-packages,
on torn envelopes. Your lines were measured
so carefully to become in our veins
the blood of prisoners. In the free verse
of another language I imprisoned
each line—but I touched my own exile.
This hush, while your ghazals lay in my palms,
was accurate, as is this hush which falls
at news of your death over Pakistan
and India and over all of us no
longer there to whom you spoke in Urdu.
Twenty days before your death you finally
wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack
of Beirut you had no address. . .I
had gone from poem to poem, and found
you once terribly alone, speaking
to yourself: “Bolt your doors, Sad heart! Put out
the candles, break all cups of wine. No one,
now no one will ever return.” But you
still waited, Faiz, for that God, that Woman,
that Friend, that Revolution, to come at
last. And because you waited, I
listen as you pass with some song,

A memory of musk, the rebel face of hope. 

- Agha Shahid Ali

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Spring, Open

Winter is many nights gone in Kashmir and it seems to be the perfect time to lament about Harissa. After all, that is one of the two good things the winters bring. The other being snow.
Like folklore, no one is quite sure how the harissa tradition began. These days not many people bother about this and other questions Kashmir throws up. There are all sorts of stories conjured up about it, involving kings, paupers, Persians, soldiers, Mongolians and horse meat. But the same story tellers use this set of characters to trace the origins of waz-wan as well. So, one can’t be very sure. Story tellers often are people with sense of history gone for a very adventurous walk.
Harissa is a meat preparation and in Kashmir made exclusively with mutton. It is a slow cooked dished, cooked overnight in a large earthen vessel during winters and served in the early morning at breakfast. The meat is boiled in a variety of spices and combined with some starchy rice-water and oil, all the while cooking on a moderated heat and stirring slowly. The prolonged heat and constant stirring turns the meat into a stringy paste which is harissa essentially. The process can be replicated at home but only with an adequate quantity of boneless meat.
The traditional shops where it is served across the city have a uniform look. They are small, low establishments which, all things considered, look straight out of a Dickens novel. They are drab and damp like old kitchens and usually feature an old man surrounded by hungry boys. The walls are heavy with moisture and a dozen bags. And to complete the scene a dozen more young men – unshaven in their morning rawness – hang around the shop idly peeping through the glass windows.
The bakeries were already abuzz by the time the harissa shops started, which was soon after the Fajr prayers. Just when the sun has fully appeared on the horizon. Men were returning from the mosques, mumbling prayers under their breath. Somebody was fidgeting with the switchboard in the mosque. The microphone gave a sudden shriek and died away. A few women were out to buy bread. The streets were quiet save the chatter of a few students returning from one tuition en-route to another. They held their jackets tight and their books close. The early morning lives were just about to start. The half-insane cowherd who sang ballads to his cows and asked passersby for cigarettes. The milkman who only delivered pure milk in Ramazan.  Stray dogs, cold and tired in the morning returned to garbage heaps. The army men marched back to their barracks after the night’s patrol. The rest of Srinagar slept.
This was early winter so snow was still some months away. Its absence lent a grey hue to dawns and everything appeared equal parts hopeful and gloomy. The harissa walla’s was a small establishment in a dilapidated building just across the Red Cross road in Srinagar. A few men had gathered selling vegetables from hand carts on the nearly empty street.
Dickens worked inside the shop. A heavy curtain marked the entrance to a spacious and crowded room. The walls were greasy with perspiration. The shop owner sat on the elevated platform where he, assisted by a few younger men, doled out bowl-fuls of harissa to the men who had gathered there. There were no women present.
That early in the morning people like to keep it simple – so you simply enter the shop and say “Salam” after which you tell the owner the quantity of harissa you’d like to have. Many arrive with tiffin boxes and casseroles to carry the harissa home. Others are served in the shop, on one of the six long benches. A pile of plates lay on one side of the shop owner. He gave the harissa vat a stirring, the plate a mop, and with a “Bismillah” dipped his bowl in the vat to bring it out full and brimming. On a stove near the wall he kept a skillet full of oil. Hot oil is poured over the harissa – so hot that it carries a flame and gives a dramatic, magician-like blaze when poured on the plate. A small kebab adjusted somewhere on the plate along with a little methi-maaz (originally a wazwan dish, and served with the harissa only as an extra accompaniment) and the plate is ready to be served.

The wall opposite to me carried a frame on which the 30 parts of the Holy Quran was written in a minute font. A few more pictures hung on the walls, gone blue with age, doing nothing to improve the mood of the place. A man came forward with my plate of harissa. He was wearing a shirt and two faded cardigans of which he had pulled the sleeves around his elbows. He wore baggy trousers and I imagined that he must have taken off his pheran to work in the joint and must have started at about seven in the morning.
The fresh girdah which is served with the harissa is tandoor baked. A soft and moist ball of dough is flattened forcefully with the palm and grooves made with fingers. This is then gently slapped against the wall of a tandoor. The girdah is a staple with harissa. Nothing else goes as well.
The usual clamour of the shops dims away from the ears. The soft fresh aroma of the bread and the wafting fragrance of the harissa is all that captures the senses. The feast is served on a small decrepit plate with a floral trimming. Mid way I pause, realising that I am doing it wrong. Season’s first harissa is to be eaten slowly, ceremoniously – not gulped down desperately. The people next to me were doing it wrong too. Talking way too much. Not noting the taste. How it melts in the mouth. How it warms the soul. And how, after you are through with one plate you ask for another without contemplation. There is just so much of metaphysics in a plate of pounded meat.
The first harissa of the season was just had. People were still streaming into the shops, closing time was fast approaching. There is no system of billing. The man on the platform and his assistants know who ate how much and charge accordingly. The girdah are complimentary.
Harissa is like an ambassador of the winters. It makes a small appearance in November and by the time we are in the throes of winter it is fully established across the city. That is the time when soon-to-be-in-laws exchange daeghfuls and mid level bureaucrats send equal quantities to impress their higher ups. As it is served throughout the winters and winters only, for this year, harissa has bid good bye till November. Some people take an aversion to the only-winters rule. But I think it adds a sense of mystique and charm to it. a tradition the origins of which are unclear. Harissa is a recipe left over from some forgotten pages of an ancient travelogue. But April is too late in the season to be talking about it anyhow. Spring is upon us and the government has opened the Tulip Garden for public just to make sure that spring is officially here. Elsewhere people may have to wait for the seasons to turn. But in Kashmir, we let the tulips officiate spring.