Thursday, September 17, 2015

"Shall We?" - 2

At the end of the trip was Srinagar.

At the beginning of it was Srinagar, too. Like return of Spring in March. A bit unsure, but very much there.

The stranger looked back at the aeroplane that had brought him here. How unromantic is air travel! What story of love if it doesn't travel over rocky mountains and dangerous cliffs. What love if it is not hurled over a precipice!

The stranger passed through the waiting queue of people at the baggage carousel. People were already piling their trolleys when he reached and waited patiently for his suitcase. There are only two baggage claim belts at Srinagar airport. The other one was empty. The arrival terminal is bereft of any glowing billboards and other fan fare. Just a Foreigners Registration Desk and a few policeman. 

A policeman came forward and asked him if he was a foreigner. The stranger said no. 

Confused the policeman asked, "What is your country?". "Kashmir", he said. 

And smiled to himself.

Thats how I saw him coming and that's how he shall appear in my eyes on countless occasions. Smiling to himself, his red lips curled in an unabashed grin. Behind his dark glasses his eyes adjusting to the sunlight outside. I remember how gently his hair had fallen on his forehead. I remember that he had secretly loved his looks. I remember I had done too.

Love is a pointless emotion anyway, he had said before he had left. And now I couldn't help a sinful wave turn inside me as he made his way through the throng of waiting placards. His fair face and red shirt standing out. 

Of course we had coffee. Words and laughter flowed. A lot was said and heard. Autumn was not melancholy after all. I dont think it will ever be. I had prayed for him, and it was answered. Under the falling leaves of the chinar it was all blossoms.

The frail question still hung, "Will you dance with me?" be continued...

Sunday, August 16, 2015

India and the Kashmir Ad

Dear Admakers from India,

There has been a spate of Kashmir-focused advertisements in India media recently. I feel we need to talk. This didnt need to be elaborated, but here is the deal, you seem to not understand Kashmir. 

It started with a benign ad by an electronic payment gateway. A man somewhere in rural Kashmir makes an e-payment for some spare parts and produces electricity so that kids can play at night. (At night? No, sir, not in Kashmir. Its neither safe nor tradition for kids to be out of homes after Maghrib prayers have been called out. Ask around.)

Then came the incredibly cute ad from a bank set to a traditional Kashmiri rhyme. Personally, I dont find the ad to have much in common with Kashmir except the background score, but anyway.

Then it became sinister. As all things Kashmiri tend to do, when India starts meddling.

A telecom operator thought it would be a good idea to sell phones by embarrassing Kashmir shawl merchants. The ad was the subject of  a law suit and was taken off air. I am not sure if the people behind this ad apologized, which as professionals they should have. 

Then came the this ad which conveniently chose to ignore the army's atrocities in Kashmir to portray them as friends of Kashmiri villagers.

Not to mention, the Kashmir tourism ad which so calmly ignores Jammu. Eh? (The background score is gorgeous!)

This latest ad which uses the Indian Army is what got me to this table with you. As a Kashmiri, who is appalled by the level of knowledge Indians in general have about Kashmir, I find it to be an attempt to portray Kashmir as a village utopia which it is not. The address is all wrong. It of course creates a good impression on the target audience, but ignores certain basics about Kashmir. 

On a side note, one still deals with people (highly qualified professionals) who ask "Kashmir has its own language?", "Isnt Kashmiri and Urdu the same thing?" etc. etc. Off the topic, but yeah, that happens.

Unlike what people see in these ads, a pheran clad man running towards an army camp is more likely to be shot at or arrested. Not to mention, denied entry into the camp in the very least. I am sure your research would have brought up the difficult dynamics of the relationship locals share with the Indian Army. Can I tell you a secret? We are not really fond of the army. 

For an Army camp to be set in the background of a "life long" friendship will require a collective forgetfulness of last so many years in Kashmir. The ad is a convenient brush over the disturbing realities of living in a place so militarized that it is constantly at war. Indians on an average are blissfully unaware of the undercurrents of the relationship between locals and the army. It may appear neutral and accommodating, but beneath the tranquil facade is the relationship of distrust forged by fear and reinforced by the history on Indian Army in Kashmir. Men like Bashir of the ad have been murdered by the dozen by the Indian Army with impunity. The fact that the other person is allowed to kill you on any frivolous basis is hardly the ground for life long friendship. See my point?

But the problem is set deeper. The ads have hardly any value in the contemporary Kashmir setting. Kashmir is at best a prop. A mountainous background giving the idea of a far flung place. A place with limited access. It ads value to the brand, of course, and simultaneously beats a subtle nationalistic drum, I know that. But then, why in Kashmir? You could have done it at some place in India where people are actually fond of the armymen? 

The friendly Army and the friendly villagers using a friendly online portal to share baby pics on Whatsapp. It is a furtherance of the propaganda posters which the Army puts up every now and then around Srinagar. Of course, Srinagar is of least interest to you. It is neither rural nor inaccessible. We have cities too, you see. And contrary to what you may assume, we do have people who speak fluent un-accented English and have an immaculate Urdu pronunciation. I wonder why no one finds them. They are all over.

Granted that the tragedy of Kashmir is not going to sell you any products, the least you could do is not to use it to sell any more. A little perspective is all that I am talking about. When you speak of Kashmir and your army in its context, see it how Kashmiris would see it. At least try. Your ads will come out different. 

A funny thing happened while I was writing this letter, you have come up with another ad. There are two kids in this ad, running after an army truck waving them goodbye. I am reminded of two episodes from my life in Kashmir by this scene. Want to hear? (You dont have much choice). Once, I was on my way to school and an army truck passed by me. There was a little boy, no bigger than the girl in the ad (if memory serves, he even looked similar). The truck scared him so much that he ran and hid himself behind me. Seeking refuge behind a stranger was, to that small child, the better option than just walking alongside the truck. Another incident happened when I was 12 years old. I was going by an auto rickshaw, one wintry day and an army-man stopped the auto and directed us to come out. Being only 12, I thought he must be calling the driver and not me. But, boy oh boy, was I wrong. First he scolded me for not getting out when called, to which I apologized. And then he asked for my identity card - which I did not have. I tried explaining that I didn't have one and he could check with my school and all, but to no avail. He wanted to detain me or something till the auto driver stepped in and pleaded. Showed his identity card and assured the armyman that I was just a kid (because pre-teens sometimes can be mistaken for adults, you know). The armyman let me go finally but not without a tremble in my spine which had nothing to do with the cold weather. 

Enough of nostalgia, but do you get my point? Next time if you want to place your product in the Kashmiri context, find a theme which is less embarrassing.

Laughing all the way on the hilarity of your ads,
Rich Autumns 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015


The waiters had appeared, setting glasses upside down in preparation of early evening diners. But mainly the restaurant was empty. Tea. A cup of tea is a good idea at this hour. The tea arrived brimming hot in white ceramic. the waiter laid the cup slowly, and delicately like an artist, took a step backward to examine its position at the table. Like still life, in which the stranger was just an object. An object in someone else’s painting.
As if acknowledging this idea, the waiter nodded at the stranger and smiling went away.

A few tables away a young guy with blue spectacles sat looking prettily at his date. A light jazz played in the restaurant. “Strangers in the night” the stranger could hear in his mind. It was hot day, by Srinagar standards. And the air was dusty. The many ornamental plants and the air conditioning did nothing to improve the air. Across the lawn trimmed to perfection, beyond the edge, traffic rumbled by. Its many sounds barely audible over the music in the café. A small marquee had been set up inside the hotel to give it a Middle Eastern feel. The curtain around the marquee looked untidy and unwashed.

The stranger had wandered into this place looking for company. He realized that he stayed there for too long. He looked at his tea cup. Empty again. It was Eid and he had nowhere to go.

After the Eid prayers, a random person stepped forward from the throng of strangers at the congregation and hugged him. The stranger hugged him back. It was Eid after all. But the man was gone before the stranger could see his face. He was lost in a throng of onlookers and bored people waiting to get out of the mosque. He had thin shoulders and deep black eyes. He disappeared in the crowd.

There was a moment of happiness and the plain joy of it bounded onto him. This would be over soon, he said to himself. There is a fire on the mountains. A long road leads up the hill. If you make it through, the air is fragrant with burnt roses. The singed petals pave the way up.

The stranger smiled at the empty cups. The top of the mountain is an unknown place. It may have roses, luscious and covered in dew drops. Or nettles, grown over the years.

The music in the café changed, to a deep soulful violin. The boy across the table was still smiling at his date. The stranger thought of the man who had hugged him. In a city of unknown people, someone had tried to make a connection. But then he had disappeared. May be for all the warmth of his heart, he had found the stranger cold, and withdrawn. The stranger was still thankful for that. In  the weepy sky that overcast the city  that day, he wrapped his hand round the cup of tea. It had gone cold. Now it was just porcelain. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Last Beautiful Dregs

I have been trying to recreate a Sehri from the past, and I must write down what remains of the last beautiful dregs of the time in my memory. Memory is a fleeting, floating channel and we can only be children once. Alas!

The past when as eager-to-fast children we would wake up to calls of hurrying parents. When Sehri meant having a full fledged meal (because, you know, what if you felt hungry?) followed by tea. 

The mornings were dark. That is the first of few. And cold. We would pile on sweaters and jackets; just enough in number that the cold wouldnt get inside yet not as many that would restrict movement.

We would tread lightly over the floor as the cold bit into tiny feet, with mother's directives, "slippers, slippers". And rush from the kitchen to the small room for eating by the gaslight. Electricity would still be sleeping when we woke. The sound of Sahar Khan's bugle affirmed that we were on time. No other sound emerged from the valley, except the heavy army convoys moving at that hour. Instantly and instinctively we would ignore them. My memory bids the same.

Someone would vaguely and uselessly try to rekindle the kangri. Few things are as disappointing as a kangri gone cold.  We would warm our hands on the gas burner and rub them to feel the heat spread. 

Half a jug of water was heated up and mixed with cold water to make it drinkable. One couldnt drink cold water without catching a cold. A little hot water was swirled in glasses too, to keep them from cracking.

The rice wrapped up in shawls and blankets like a baby and kept in the bedroom to keep warm through the night. Even then it wasn’t hot – warm just like the water, which meant that everything else needed to be hot. The kitchen was cold, cold and dangerous to visit. The air would make the spine shiver, literally. And yet, mother would stand at the cooking stove in her blue shawl, to heat up everything, in the candle light. Warming her hands on the utensils when it got very cold.

She would leave the nunchai on while we had the rice. The tea used to be perfect. May be the darkness that ripened the taste or the cold that added the flavor, the tea was never a letdown.

Behind timidly parted curtains, the morning was still night. The frosted window pane admitted no light, and the sounds from the mosque were distant. Those days, announcements from the mosques were frequent and inaudible. And outside, it was all frost. G would steal out a moment and light a secret smoke in the darkness outside just before the Azan. We all knew.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

To Keep it Relevant

On a fine day, we shall choose to talk about art.

But right now, we shall talk of something else.

On January 12, 2015 when a bunch of artists opened the first art gallery of Kashmir, Gallerie One, it generated a small buzz in a very profound city. There were bureaucrats in long overcoats and golf caps, in shawls and stoles admiring the art work. Some old shriveled-looking artists explaining the works and their meanings.

Gallerie One was the brain child of Syed Mujtaba Rizvi, a twenty something Goldsmiths art graduate. Its website (which is quite beautiful in itself) describes it to envisage as a space for artists to express and create. The gallery, the website shows the gallery as a spacious lit up room of khatambad ceilings and minimalist furniture. While I never visited the gallery, I did intend to go. Soon.

That seems difficult now. On February 23, a few officials from the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation hit the gallery and not for admiring the art. They took away the furniture, some equipment, destroyed a few art pieces and wanted to call it a day. The gallery managers documented this on mobile phone videos and put them on Youtube. The owners allege that no prior notice was served for closing down the gallery, and the actions of the officials amount to hooliganism.

The video is infuriating in parts, but Kashmiri to the core. There is a sense of unaccountability with which the ‘department people’ handle the issue ordering their men about which bespeaks of years of government service where the only accountability is to the officer above you.

There is a young woman who decides to inject some discipline in the tense air and says, “Please keep your tone down!”

Her simple reply to questions of vandalizing the properties of artists is “We also respect art. We will put it back.”

“What is your qualification in art? What do you know about art?” yells a frustrated person from behind the camera. I agree, but can see reason in her words. We rarely respect art – artists and their expression. For her, they might have just torn down a canvas or broken something made of plaster of Paris, something she can just seal over and it still would be good enough to put in a corner of her drawing room. That’s the idea of respect for art.

The idea of art is more and more alien to the urban youth. It’s something the  students who could not study science or commerce do. Or something which can be purchased from a handicrafts shop. The idea of academic excellence is excellence in science and mathematics – not literature, not arts.

A small stocky man comes forward and seems to have only one answer for every question. That it is his will and that is the way things happen in Kashmir. Also, he adds without failing, that it is the government’s policy. Then he moves on, giving orders to his men to take things and throw them out.

The question here hardly seems to be of artistic freedom as there was no issue raised on the content and the art works– though one can’t be very sure. It’s more of the official morass that stifles every aspiration in Kashmir. In a place like Kashmir, you cannot escape censorship of one way or the other. But vandalism, is unwarranted. Official hooliganism has no place in a civilized society. If there was a policy decision to remove the art gallery, the officials should have given a prior notice. A month’s prior notice, to say the least. But the gallery owners have consistently denied this. At one point a person asks the small stocky man, who identifies himself as Joint Director – Tourism, feels offended at being asked who he was, refuses to talk and sulks away like a school bully.

The art gallery owners keep asking for paperwork, and the officials keep denying it. Was there an eviction order? Apparently, the officials turned up on the spot without any warrants to evacuate the space. I also wonder, why no one (neither the officials nor the artists) call the police in.

Official high handedness is not new in Kashmir. Or news worthy. It’s a corrupt place, run by corrupt officials. What I admired in Gallerie One was the attempt it purported to be – to make contemporary art from Kashmir visible. To make art relevant to the everyday life of Kashmiris. And that is exactly why a gallery was important. And the fact that it was an indigenous attempt, made it all the more admirable and relevant.

I hope the gallery opens soon.