Monday, 24 December 2012

Thank God For Little Pleasures - X

There are two mountains in the background. One in front of the other. The closer one is not quite a mountain, a hill, rather. Its brown and the shrubbery stands out golden on it. In this rare sun-filled winter day, it is basking in the warmth. The far away one, higher and bluer, is enshrouded in a cover of white and grey mist. Usually its not visible behind all the mist. 

The blue sky beyond it. Endless.

The road is wide and open with shops on both sides of it. A red three wheeler load carrier stops near a shop, and a man with some paper invoices comes out to unload some boxes. At an ATM, a woman meticuloulsy counts the cash before tucking it in a small wallet in her large handbag. A large SUV zooms by.

In the newly found cold sunlight of winters, a stray dog yawns and goes back to sleep from which it had temporarily risen to inspect the parked cars. A man with one side of his pheran gathered on his right shoulders crosses the street to have lunch outside a closed shop. He invites a fellow shop keeper to share in his humble lunch of rice and haakh. The other person declines. They share a little laughter. 

There are big things, and there are small things. Everyone sees the Big things, but the Small things? As Emerson said, "Many eyes go through the meadow, but few see the flowers in it".

I keep on walking, without looking back.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Of Frosted Noses and Ears

Its cold as anything in Kashmir. We know that well by now. Cold is a celebration of sorts. Of whatever warmth you may get in days of steely sunlight stolen at odd hours of the day. Of sitting wrapped up in blankets and staring at bulbs which flicker with an unsure voltage. And listening to tales. Or, even to the wind as it passes gently under the window sills making noises like old men trying to whistle. Coarse.

People, who walked with their collars high and heads bent, rubbing their frosted noses swore this evening that it will snow any minute. Children going to and from tuition centres in tweed pherans and mufflers walk around with hands stuffed in their pockets. Blowing them occasionally in midst of their never ending mindless chatter. The long ladies over coats are back (as they have been every winter since Kal Ho Naa Ho), but lets  jointly thank the Almighty that the awful ear-muffs (of last year's fame) have been spared.

While the people cannot afford to spend crores of  rupees on fuel like the Abdullahs and Muftis do, we can surely pass the noon chai around with some warm girda. And feel the warmth of sitting and chatting of happier times. That's an ageless pursuit in all happy families.

Outside, it is raining.  And though the kangris have been burning bright in anticipation of snow, there is none so far. But, Hope, my dear, lies in the wait for snow.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

We Have a Problem, Houston

Last night was a frenzied hubbub of people over social networks eager to bring in the magical date of 12-12-12. Now the bedlam rests for a century, when our descendants (if Facebook and Twitter are still in vogue by then, which is difficult) would dig up our statuses to read that their fore fathers too were excited by the date. Not so much by the day. We don't know what to do with it. It's a day, well, umm, it is, you know, a day. So, yay, carpe diem!


Kashmir had come up with something. Remember the destructive 2005 earthquake? So many people spent that night in their lawns, waiting for a second earthquake to happen and their houses to collapse. It was announced over the minarets of mosques and by telephones and cell phones. Cell phones were still only a year old in Kashmir, and hence were more trustworthy than the land-lines  A second earthquake was coming, and some people were careful to add, that it had already happened in Hawal and was now "spreading".

Yesterday, there was supposed to be 'cosmo ray' attack on the earth. From 12:30 to 3:30 a.m. the earth was vulnerable to rays coming in from, of all places, Mars. Surely, the Martians are angry. (May be its because of the Chinese who are planning to plant vegetables and start a Communist Party there). We were all advised to keep the cell phones switched from during those hours. Phones have an embarrassing habit of exploding at odd hours!

Not many complaints were heard about phones exploding. But insanity among cell phones is an entirely different matter. Hashim complained of his phone suddenly turning mad at 12:30. Not sure how long the bout was sustained  but it was loud enough to wake him up. When he woke up from his slumber he found the phone dancing like an out of control ballerina and buzzing and hissing.

A snake dance!

But the real cosmic theater is supposed to occur on 22 December. This time, supposedly, with NASA's blessings. A Facebook post claimed that the night will be three times longer and the Universe will undergo a mighty transformation. We will have  a new world to ourselves, albeit with the same old problems. And what's more? The rumour mongers claim NASA's backing. But NASA played the party-pooper and  debunked the myth, saying that alignments happen every now and then and worlds do not end because of that.

A handful of presidents and prime-ministers are ending the world just fine. We need not invoke celestial activity yet.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

No Ordinary Sunsets

There is something called Beautification. Beautify (verb, transitive) means to make beautiful or add beauty to. We know Kashmir is beautiful, but in safer hands (like those of our government's) we can clearly add beauty to it. In other words beautify it. We also know, generally from travel advisers and tourism brochures, that Srinagar is the beautiful capital of beautiful Kashmir. But then, in able hands and abler minds, we can add to its beauty. Yes, beautify it too.

On 9 October, Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir called for beautification of Dal Lake. This is another beautification, not the first time called for. After the "beautification" of Jehlum which was called for a few years ago, our administration is a on a beauty adding mission. Dal comes in second. The tourist brochures already show (as they have been showing for the past few decades) a woman in a pheran wearing a heavy head gear who is rowing a shikara full of flowers in the Dal Lake. No, that is not the Commissioner's idea of beauty. That is just a subplot in a long story -  in the story the woman is supposed to be demented and is searching for Anoushka Shankar so that she could join her side dancers. 

The Dal Lake is a fascinating body of water. In the evening when the sun dips behind its vast expanse the sky flares up in a brilliant display of colours, the type Messrs Kashmir Beautification & Co. could not have managed to provide. Its the play of clouds, the sun and the open skies. Below them, the Dal lake reflects the hues - a deep orange and blue - like a giant mirror. No sunset here is ever ordinary.

Once upon a time, the Dal Lake was much larger than it is today. But now, no one remembers the day when the Dal got spoiled. It has shrunk to less than half the size of what it was a few centuries ago, and in the past twenty years the rate of shrinking has increased. The Dal is shaped somewhat like a kidney (somewhat, not completely) and half of the kidney has severe calcification. But, you won’t see that on the Boulevard side. That is for tourist brochures. On any given day there descends an army of photographers armed with DSLRs, 'point and shoot' and even mobile phones busily clicking the Dal away. It’s not a generally known fact, but the famous "boy with the faraway look in his eyes" pose was invented to be used exclusively on the Dal shores. 

The call for beautification has so far resulted in two extremely beautiful sewage plants around the Dal. Don't get me wrong. Sewage treatment plants are the need of the hour. The filth going into the lake needs to be treated to make it less toxic. The “less toxic” sewage is then pumped into the lake and it mingles with the “more toxic” sewage coming in from the houseboats. Together, they stay in the Dal feeding its algae, and floating gardens and the famous lily pads.

This Dal of ours was simply too beautiful for its own good. Tourists wanted to see it. They often inquire from locals if the lake is "open" at all times. This was the opportunity the newly grown crop of hoteliers were waiting for. They descended like a pack a wolves, looking for rooms wherever they can to accommodate just one more ‘tourist’ coming in from neighboring India who would take immense pride in buying the romance of the Dal. The neophytes were not even looking at the long haul. Back in 2005 when the seemingly sudden desire to see Kashmir arose in Indians and in one eventful summer there appeared hordes of them, they weren't even calling themselves "hoteliers". They made "rooms available", generally out of charity because the "hotels" were overflowing. And now, almost seven years later they do not bother themselves with nomenclature. They find people, who usually arrive in fake Volvos and mini-travelers, tired and dusty, dragging their suitcases with one hand and balancing a kid or sweater on the other. It doesnt take a very keen expert to realize the mushrooming hotels around the Dal. Such are the colours of  “normalcy” in Kashmir and the ‘tourists’ it brings along with it. The Dal Lake crossed itself and waited patiently for a safe death. Perhaps the lake hadn't wished to die in this way, but you can't negotiate with the hangman.

Some people believe that it is the areas around the Dal that actually pollute the lake, and not so much the dwellers in the Dal. It’s slightly ludicrous to talk of people living inside a lake (who are not even mermaids), but Dal Lake actually has a sizable population of its own. Executive Director of Centre for Environment and Law, Nadeem Qadri said in a recent function that the “lake now shelters about 50 hamlets with a population of 50,000 people”. Fifty Thousand! That’s a town in itself. (By comparison, Monaco has a population of only 35,427). A friend  once narrated to me of his ride to the interior of the lake. "The lake is filled with boat-loads of garbage to support the floating gardens to grow vegetables." (I must admit that the vegetables grown in the Dal, for all their ecological impact, are favored among the locals for their freshness). In the interior side you pass in front of houses (which are unlike houseboats) with doors that open to a small front porch. The Dal here is not blue, but a dense green hiding blackish water underneath. "An old man sits on the porch of his house with his jajeer (hookah) and smiles as you pass by. Just out of nowhere you approach the Char Chinari, and are awed by the majesty of the mountains that rise behind it".  With fifty thousand people clamoring over the Dal, the lake has churned  a small isolated community floating on its own waters, oblivious to the surroundings.

Unfortunately, not many realize that the Dal is not a gold mine. You can't grab a handful of this gold and cash it. With each hand-span of water lost, the Dal loses its edges forever. One could only sigh at the colossal loss and tragedy that Dal Lake is. A lake right in the center of the city is a rare occurrence. But Kashmir is an exception to so many rules, that rules have begun to look like exceptions. Dal falls in line.

A view of the lake under the newly constructed bridge in Dalgate

 At this moment the government decides  to beautify the Dal. The words used are decidedly misleading. What the administration can do is make an earnest, last ditch effort to save something that defines the city's tourism heritage. It can't beautify the Dal anymore than Nature has already done. What the government can only hope is to clean it, which will restore the Dal. The lake. It's survival. Bring it back on the track where the imminent threats are warded off. So to say, take the sting off the 'developments' going around it. Beautification is a long distance away. That would be when standing on its bank, one could smell the fragrance of flowers growing far away in the Dal. When the famed "Dal ki hawa" (Wind of the Dal) does not  carry obnoxious odours of weeds and sewage treatments plants. When empty cans and bottles are not found floating on the Dal like unwelcome visitors. When there are bridges which do not contribute to its eutrophication. Beautifying would be giving the Dal something which it didn't have. Painting  a clean house is "beautification", but cleaning the house is a necessity - even if it doesn't diminish its ugliness.

There needs to be a line between "beautification" and "restoration". Till then the LWDA may, as one of its signposts round the Dal reads, "have a think" over it!.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Thank God For Little pleasures - IX

"I say, are we to talk now?"
"No, we are just to have tea."

“I say let the world go to hell, but I should always have my tea.” 

― Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Saturday, 24 November 2012

One Full Year

On 25th November last year, I began writing on this space. Clueless of what to write about. Happily, I still am. Hence the blog is eclectic and full of random things, events and ideas. Hopefully, it will remain so.

Kashmir is as beautiful, except that they have opened the new bridge on Dal Lake, which by its effects, appears to be extremely carelessly made and drawn. Now there is a threat to the bund with the 'tedha bridge'. Well, well!

Autumn is still a song, much like last year. The weather's been punctual and lets say Amen for that. Autumn is just as beautiful. And people are still complaining about it. People always complain about the wrong things. You can't help it. You have to sift through the complaints. And I have realized that Autumn is not one thing to complain about.

A big shout out to all the readers who made blogging exciting and took the time (and courage) to read the posts here. I have been quite passionate about blogging this year, and hence I'll call it the "year of the blog".

Thank you, dear reader. Let's see how it goes from here on.

PS: Excuse the cheesiness. "I don't believe in low-fat cooking." 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Colours, Absent

17 November, 2012. Srinagar, Kashmir.

The sun was absent in the morning. It was behind somewhere a very dense grey sky. But it's hard to say where it actually was. In the east, lets say. But experience, and some uncertainty, tells me that it will get denser in the days to come. Its Kashmir, and we are approaching winter.

I think people come unhinged in autumns. In winters, its very hard to tell why. Grey isn't a very happy colour  Now that the poplars stand leafless alongside the chinars, one can see through their branches. And gaze into the endless grey space of the tallest skies. The baked bricks of the houses in the neighborhood behind the steel gates don't add any colour either. When the sun sets the sky will be red. Not the usual contours of blue and orange, but grey and red. And the sun will be a opaque sphere of glowing platinum. Still invisible.

I have always (and the blog be my witness) been in love with the turn of seasons in Kashmir. And rightly too!


There is a clamour of sad news coming in from Palestine. Israel is at it, again. Murdering innocents by the dozen. You dont have to be an expert on Middle East affairs to condemn this mindless violence.

There is also a clamour of news coming in from Kashmir. But its the start of Muharram, the Islamic new year. Every year these days we remind ourselves of the sacrifice of the grandson of Prophet Muhammad SallallahuAlaihiWaSalam and hence begin the year solemnly, on a somber note.

Guess the families in Palestine will have a lot to remember in the Muharrams to come. My heart reaches out to them. May Allah give them strength!


Its three in the afternoon. And, finally, sunshine.

In Palestine, too. Soon. InshaAllah.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012


In Kashmir, in autumn, chestnuts, are a delicacy. Their season is short lived, not lasting more than a few weeks each year. 

Ghaer seller Residency Road, Srinagar.
For some reason they are also called Punjaeb-ghaer. But there are other names as well, Haaput-phal (literally bear fruit), wann-gaer (jungle chestnuts) - perhaps,owing to the fact that they are generally found in jungles growing wild and are rarely 'cultivated' in Kashmir.

Every autumn towards the ending of October, these chestnuts make a small appearance. For a week or two then they are sold from hand carts in one or two places in the busy bazaars of the city. By the mid of November they are rare, and after that they are gone. They are heated on a small stove in a metal container until the outer brown covering has charred, after which it is peeled and the inner white core is eaten.

To buy them, still if you are lucky, head straight to Lal Chowk where you will find vendors on the Residency Road. Outside the Abi Guzar lane or near the Sheikhbagh gate of Tyndale Biscoe School. I haven't seen them being sold at many places, if you have please comment in the 'comment box' below. 

Friday, 9 November 2012

A Postcard from Srinagar

The weather in Srinagar is always something one can talk about. And while, you are at it, admire it. In Kashmir, the four seasons are distinct - something, which takes a while to understand when you experience the weather in other places.

Outside, the wind is rustling the leaves. The leaves are present everywhere in Srinagar. In Autumn, you cannot escape them. They have basked in the heat of summer and have now turned a golden yellow. Some of them, a lot of them actually, are pale and lifeless. Many are blighted and grey. Some catch the wind easily and float wherever it takes them. Some scatter about. Others remain tangled in the thickets. Some wander away, and will be back in spring. Some will bring in new life, others will never be seen again.

In the long line of trees, Chinars all of them, on the Residency Road the leaves have paved the paths golden. A sweeper sweeps them everyday. The leaves are then burned. Turned into coal and ash. In a distant ground, the woman who is making coals from leaves holds a large broom, a small poker and a harrow. She turns the leaves she's found to char them equally. Then pours water so that they don't turn to ash.  The leaves lie midway, not unburnt but not fully ash. Then she takes a poker and collects a small amount of burning coals for her own kangri. She tucks the kangri under her pheran, adjusts her head scarf and smiles coyly at no one in particular. She calls out to a little girl, her daughter perhaps, and hands the kangri to her, while she goes about preparing coals.

In the floating sunshine of the afternoon the sunlight dances a little among the clouds. The warmth spreading like the fiery glow on the coals in the woman's kangri. By dusk, the sun would have gone far away. The leaves would whirlwind and settle down. A few street vendors would unpack their wares and display them on the roads outside hotels. The knotted traffic would ease, slowly, as the roads become empty.

A few tourists are out for a stroll. A rag-picker roams about. The stray dogs. Army-men.

An old man, wearing a pheran and a woollen cap cycles across the road. His eyes are watery, and blinking in the cold. He is thinking of the kangri at home and the tea. Especially the tea.

A cup of tea would be wonderful.

(Photo Credit: dawardedmari)

Monday, 5 November 2012

The Fourth Bridge

"Srinagar : The Fourth Bridge, Hari Parbat, and in the distance Kotwal and Harmuk."

Zaina Kadal, The fourth (of seven) bridges of Srinagar.

Photo from, A Woman's Life for Kashmir - Irene Petrie (1903)

Zaina Kadal was (in)famous for rumours. The Kashmiri saying "Zaen Kadalich khabar", (literally, the news of Zaina Kadal) means 'a rumour'.


The Zaina-kadal, or fourth bridge of the city, used to be the place where false rumours were hatched, but now the news makers have moved to the first bridge, the Amiran-kadal. Though the wise knew that Khabar-i-Zaina-kadal  was false, the majority are not wise, and much misery is caused to the villagers by the reports which emanate from the city.
Walter E. Lawrence - The Valley of Kashmir (1895)

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Thank God For Little Pleasures - VIII

Autumn Song

Like a joy on the heart of a sorrow,
   The sunset hangs on a cloud;
A golden storm of glittering sheaves,
Of fair and frail and fluttering leaves,
   The wild wind blows in a cloud.

Hark to a voice that is calling
   To my heart in the voice of the wind:
My heart is weary and sad and alone,
For its dreams like the fluttering leaves have gone,
   And why should I stay behind?

~ Sarojini Naidu

(c) Photo Credit @imsaalis

Friday, 26 October 2012

The Butcher, The Baker and This Eid

These days in Kashmir, you will find the people wondering if it is still October. Some have already started to wonder what the 'real' winter will look like. Some are looking at the LPG crisis and the power shortages and raising a personal brouhaha within themselves. The Darbar is moving, and that is just another thing moving out of Kashmir.

Some folks who came to Kashmir to spend the Eid here have already fallen ill. Caught the flu and fever. By turns.

But Eid-ul-Azha is round the corner. And every thing is equal potions of glee and glum.

The top most priority is, of course, meat. The butcher shops are crowded. They have pre-bookings and regular phone calls from awaiting customers. People need meat! Mixed with the scarcity of LPG to cook it, even kerosene is having a day out in Srinagar. On seeing the rush at the local butcher's a person remarked, "as if he is selling LPG". But we know Kashmir has run out of gas!

Like wazas on weddings, butchers call the shots on this Eid. From delivering sheep, to showing up on time for slaughtering them. Wazas, for themselves have resigned on this Eid quoting the scarcity of LPG and the low quality of meat available.

Then there is the bakery. Festive, formal, fun, foreign, folksy,flagrant, fresh, flavourful, fragrant, familiar, fuzzy - there is a piece of Kashmir's bakery for Everyone. And Everyone is acutely aware of it. He is everywhere. Everyone crowds all the shops selling anything named 'bakery'. Some shops which do not sell, 'bakery' normally  cease all business and sell 'bakery'. Everyone knows it, and you'll find him there as well. He is in the makeshift stalls at Khayam Chowk, buying bakery as well as in the huge shamyana at Nawhatta Chowk doing the same. In the fly infested establishments run by Indians in interior Dalgate and also in the finer cakeries in Lal Chowk.

The streets are always crowded. People moving here and there. Invariably carrying bakery. Precious boxes!

On the little plaza outside "Modern Sweets" a TV crew was asking the shoppers some questions. A middle-aged man was explaining something very evocatively with a lot of flourishing of hands. Then two young girls stepped into the frame and the anchor began questioning them. A small broken circle of onlookers formed around them. Meanwhile rest of the world went on to buy Bakery.

It was only befitting to sample a piece of 'bakery' here.

This year Eid arrives on a precarious date. October 27th is ever observed as a general strike in Kashmir. It was the date on which Indian troops landed in Srinagar in 1947, and thus began our 65 year old conflict. Since then thousands died, thousands were maimed, thousands vanished into thin air. The conflict didn't end, the celebrations did.

But lets, even for a Black Day, sweep the despair aside, and commemorate Eid-ul-Zuha, and remember that God's tests are great, but for the faithful the rewards greater.

In the end, Eid Mubarak, dear reader. May Allah shower his blessings on you - this Eid.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

A Coffee Revolution in Egypt


From Aden, the use of coffee extended to Mecca, Medina and other cities and towns of Arabia, the knowledge and taste for it rapidly spreading outwards from that country to Syria and Persia. Public coffeehouses being everywhere established, also in many of the other countries in western Asia, affording, according to one authority, " a lounge for the idle and a relaxation for the man of business, where the politician retailed the news of the state ; the poet recited his verses, and the Mollahs  delivered their sermons to the frequenters." But the  mania for coffee becoming so great about this period,  particularly in Syria, that an effort was made by authority  of the government to check, if not to entirely suppress, the further growth of its consumption among the inhabitants, on the alleged ground of " its intoxicating properties," but in reality because of its use leading to social and festive gatherings, incompatible with the strictness and teaching of the Mahometan religion.

From Syria the use of the "benign potation," as it was then termed, reached Cairo about 1510, being received with equal avidity in that city, so much so that in that year its indiscriminate use was prohibited on religious grounds, also by Khaine Beg, the then governor of the city. In his proclamation forbidding the use of coffee, it was assailed by him as " having an inebriating effect, and of producing inclinations condemned by the Koran." This edict was, however, rescinded by his successor, Causin, soon after his assuming the governorship. But another effort was made to suppress its use in 1523 by the chief priest, Abdallah Ibrahim, who denounced its use in a sermon delivered in the mosque of Haffanainea violent commotion being produced among the populace, the opposing factions coming to blows over its use. The governor, Sheikh Obelek, a man wise in his generation and time, then assembled the mollahs, doctors and others of the opponents of coffee-drinking at his residence, and after listening patiently to their tedious harangues against its use, treated them all to a cup of coffee each, first setting the example by drinking one himself. Then dismissing them, courteously withdrew from their presence without uttering a single word. By this prudent conduct the public peace was soon restored, and coffee was ever afterward allowed to be used in Cairo. 


~ Joseph. M. Walsh
Coffee - Its History, Classification and Description, (1894)

PS: Aden is a seaport in Yemen.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Two Pink Dresses

Malala Yousufzai is a young Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban because she was against their idea of banning girls from schools. She wanted to be educated, wanted to go to school. She is 14, and currently hospitalized in Britain after a surgery she underwent in Peshawar. Her condition remains precarious. 

A lot of things are not right.

These are terrible times when we expect political maturity from 14 years old. Children are supposed to have free minds. Not corrupted. They are supposed to fall not in line with any propaganda, until someone comes along and washes their brains, by which time, they have usually matured. Children are not dangerous. They can't be. They learn from what they see around them. And so did Malala. You can't hold her responsible for that. But most importantly, children learn. They can be educated. Old people cannot. There is a certain adage about old dogs and new tricks, but I won't repeat that here.

Malala's blog was her bane. She wrote about the disruption of normal life in Mingora, her town, and living under a cloud of terror. She wrote that "she wore her pink dress to school when the principal asked them not to wear uniforms any more so as to not attract attention."

Farzana is a Kashmiri. She was born last month and abandoned by her parents at birth. Abandoned. Left lying the hospital, just like that. Like a polythene bag they forgot to take back after picnic. She had a cleft lip and palate. Babies that small are busy in a world of their own. If they realised the grief of this one, Farzana would have questioned her parents. And questioned them woefully. But she left the questions and woes to be decided later on. After repeated appeals to various NGOs for adoption, Farzana was adopted by a childless couple two weeks after her birth. It is customary to dress girls in pink. And boys in blue. Some kind people at the GB Pantt, hospital dressed Farzana in pink woolens.


I hadn't heard about Yousufzai till she was shot, but she somehow, reminded me of a couplet by Urdu poet Moulana Hali. One of our Urdu teachers in school had a great talent for recalling verses. She'd recite them very passionately too. Once our class room had to be used as exam centre for the Board Exams of Class 12th. She enquired which school had been allotted this centre  and it turned out to be some all-girls school. At once she rubbed the blackboard clean and wrote this verse for the girls who would sit in the class. I copied it down. 

ا ے  ماؤ ،بہنو ، بیٹیو  دنیا  کی زینت  تم  سے  ہے
ملکوں کی بستی  ہو تم ہی قوموں کی عزت تم سے ہے 
تم گھر کی ہو شہزادیاں' شہروں کی ہو آبادیاں 
غمگیں دلوں کی شادیاں ، دکھ سکھ میں راحت تم سے ہے 

(Aye maao behno betiyo, dunya ki zeenat tum say hai
Mulkon ki basti ho tum hi, Qomon ki Izzat tum say hai
Tum ghar ki ho shehzaadiyan, shehron ki ho aabadiyan
Ghamgeen dilon ki shaadiyan, dukh sukh mein raahat tum say hai)

Sunday, 14 October 2012

On Kashmir

"... it is a life of small things played out amid gigantic surroundings, this existence in the happy valley hidden away from the outer world behind the great mountain barriers. Shuttered-in boats float by on the river, camps of unknown folk pass one on the road, occasionally greetings are exchanged with folk whom we knew not before and shall not meet again. It is a restful, unfettered, unique life amid all the beauties of a country decorated by Nature in her most varied manner, a land that is like a dream when one is in it, that haunts one with the reality of an obsession when its snowy peaks and flower-filled valleys have been exchanged for grey skies and grimy towns."

Marion Doughty, Afoot Through the Kashmir Valleys

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Bridges from Where to Wherever

Look what the wind blew into Kashmir! Autumn winds are notorious. They blow all sorts of things hither and thither. People catch cold. Sneeze. Cough. And then all is forgotten in the falling auburn chinar leaves. 

In the past two months two prominent politicians from India have visited the Kashmir University. Impressive, one would say. Looking at also that this second visit carried top industrialists too from India, Kashmir could rejoice in their blessed presence. But this year, Kashmir has already rejoiced quite a bit. And romanced too, with Shahrukh Khan’s movie shoot in Pahalgam and Ladakh (- well, as much romance as he could do while playing an army officer - which, knowing him, is more than enough to last a lifetime.)

But, two weeks and two politicians later Kashmir’s autumn air is no richer. I don’t feel it. The industrialists didn't add anything much too. But surely the air in Kashmir University, their playing field, would have felt different. Choked with so many policemen inspecting everything from mobile phones to writing pens. The policemen have their way of checking things. I was once asked to show my cell phone for ‘checking’ at an event where the Chief Minister (not Omar Abdullah, a different one) was visiting. The policeman took my phone turned it around, opened the flap, closed it, opened it again, pressed a button or two and was assured that it did neither exploded nor triggered any explosion. So he returned it to me. I asked him if it was necessary to frisk me every time I passed by, and he said, in an irritated voice, “Haan, chief Minister aaya hai. Koi lallu-panju nahi aaya hai.”

So naturally security over mobile phones has to be beefed up when the visitor happens to be the President of India or the General Secretary of India’s ruling party. No lalluing-panjuing there! The university was turned into a garrison, replicating the crackdowns of the 90s with policemen beating every track. Policemen on every entry point. On every exit point. On watch towers. On tree tops. Policemen in the conference halls. In civvies, camouflaging as students. This lead to the belief that it was a police university, but that view was quickly exchanged for one favouring a police state. And things were, in general, 'settled for ever'.

Both the visits were boycotted too. But the university succeeded in finding some students to attend to the visitors. For the second visit, the guidelines were clear and well worded. Taking care of natural allergies of the visitors no bearded students were allowed. Also, the university wanted some ‘neutral students’. (Neutral, not neutered. Mind the gap!) Then there were guidelines regarding the questions to be asked. The foreigners were not supposed to have come prepared for a difficult test. So there should be no questions like ‘why are SMS still banned in the Valley?’ easy questions, may be from the book, “100 ways to Understand Kashmir’s pain”, or “Kashmir’s pain for Dummies” which fulfilled their purpose of visit.

Did the University take choreography lessons for making the students stand up for the Indian National Anthem? Last time the university had trouble finding students who would stand for the ‘Jana Gana Mana’. Reports were, the students had gathered outside the convocation hall where Rahul Gandhi was giving a speech, and sang the Pakistani National Anthem. Standing.

Meanwhile Rahul Gandhi did his bit in 'connecting' to the youth. The middle-aged bachelor wore jeans and a jacket to the venue, shunning his white kurta - a complete university student costume. Talked of a student exchange program. Got the industrialists to talk of jobs and employment, and how the one wish they had was to see Kashmiris working for them in various locations. However, there was also a small talk of an upcoming cement plant in Kashmir. (Natural resources, well, of course!) The word "trust" was thrown around a lot, but it wasn't explained to the youth how trust and PSA went hand-in-hand. But those were difficult queries  and were not allowed.

And thus they concluded Building Bridges. From where to wherever.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Beyond the Paint on Wood

It took me a while to realise that I had parked my car next to the shrine of Dastgeer Saheb. The old, imposing structure with its absence has left the square looking very incomplete. Empty. Sad, in the fact, that a monument erected out of love and reverence has vacated the space to chaos and, being in Kashmir, some more politics.

Nothing much is visible of the work going on inside the steel walls. I watched a workman wearing a yellow helmet working on the rubble. Tearing away what had burnt off. An old arched window which was partly burnt stood on its old frame. It still had its freshly painted white on the top of the arch. Below that everything was burnt.  I could see someone shovel at the rubble. A board creaked, cranked and fell down. With a thud. A cloud of dust rose in the sky, and was lost. Ancient dust from an ancient shrine. A piece of history, thus went into thin air.

Who shall take care of the dust? Who shall piece together what was lost in the fire?

The building in green and white topped with a green spire was a magnet of believers.In the emotion charged atmosphere, the shrine was aglow with overflowing sentiments of want and contentment, desire and fulfillment, grief and relief. On the days of the Urs of Ghaus-ul-Azam the shrine used to be jam packed.

On one such evening, I was exiting the main hall of the aasthaan, when a woman in an abaya tugged at me.  As on every Urs, the hall was packed with the devotees. The women used to sit in the lower half of the hall, below the step. The menfolk near the windows. From the road, you could often see some old men sitting in the wooden window frames with prayer beads. She had been sitting in the rows, and  praying. With tears in her eyes, she pointed towards a nearby stack of booklets. I stepped aside thinking that she may like to get one herself, but she didn't move and kept pointing. So I picked one up and gave it to her. As tears rolled down her cheeks, she took my hand, kissed it and pressed it to her forehead. I kept looking on, and with a thousand prayers and blessings she took the book from my hand.

Such was the place. People came empty handed, with hearts full of hope. Broken hearts needing some faith to repair them. People came looking for that faith. Faith is a  thread that binds us to things unseen. From Dastgeer Saheb the threads ran to Prophet Muhammad (SallalhuAlaihiWaSallam). The threads are very much still there.

What the fire burnt was paint and wood.

I would have said, and so many memories with it. But memories dont burn actually. They remain etched. Much like faith.

(Appeared on Kashmir Dispatch)

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Thank God for Little Pleasures - VII

For the time we spend with our dear ones. Friends. Family. Loved ones. Every minute that passes in pleasure. We shall remember it fondly after its gone. And hope, in vain, that it comes back.

Deep as first love, and wild with all regret;
O Death in Life, the days that are no more!

Sunday, 9 September 2012

The Pretty Rain from Those Sweet Eaves

It's been raining for a day and a half in Srinagar.

The roads are smeared with mud and muddy potholes. The shikaras in the Dal tied up. The nights are darker, which only serves to bring out the lights brighter. In all this the Boulevard still shines.

In this weather which some may find gloomy and depressing, and others inspirational and poetic I share with you one of Kashmir's top comfort food - nadermonj and til-karr. This was bought and consumed yesterday. Made by the masterful monj-woul who sits outside the shrine of Syed Yaqoob Sahib (Saed-Saheb) in Sonwar, next to Burn Hall School.

He is a plump fellow who sits among fritters of various kinds and keeps a poker to pick til-karr because the tray is off his arm's reach. 

As of this writing, it is still raining. And, no, I am not complaining. 

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.
- H.W. Longfellow

PS: The title is the title of a poem by Emily Dickinson.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Begin to Weave

Begin to weave and God will provide the thread. - German proverb.

There  is  a world beyond the little rooms we spend our lives in. The small obstacles which hinder our paths. That deter us from moving on. We may like to sit on one Sunday afternoon with friends, parents or peers and decide our lives ahead of us. But you can't plan the path so that its easier to walk on.

Life gets in the way. And our best shot is only to hope for an easier way. You land up in deep trouble and can do nothing about it. Look for exits and pray there is some light at the end of the tunnel. There always is, and every wayfarer finds it. Provided, he keeps looking. He keeps walking. He keeps hoping. 

The wisdom we all learn to borrow from fables come in handy.  Sleeping Beauty didn't plan to sleep a hundred years. But her prince was yet far away. And what are a hundred years when compared to eternal love! An eternity!

Pass them, and they don't seem that big anyways.

The first step is always difficult. Who shall set the ball rolling? Who shall cast the first stone? These are the difficult questions. Picking up the threads is not hard, it is the weaving  that is painful. 

For one man's part, it is enough that he plays it well. That he works before he sleeps. I remember in our school, on the wall outside the Vice Principal's office was a wall-hanging which read, "God has a plan for my life. And that is all I need to know." God indeed has a plan, to which we all must admit without complaint. 

The caravan of life shall always pass
Beware that is fresh as sweet young grass
Let’s not worry about what tomorrow will amass
Fill my cup again, this night will pass, alas.
Omar Khayyam

Sunday, 26 August 2012

Thank God For Little Pleasures - VI

There is no love sincerer than the love of food. 
George Bernard Shaw

Monday, 20 August 2012

Eid on Twitter

Eid Mubarak, reader.

This is a collection of Eid Mubarak (and Eid related tweets, mainly) tweets from the world over. Some of these people I know, some I don't. Some I follow on Twitter, some I don't. Obviously, I am not endorsing these people or their other tweets. In case, your tweet is here and you don't want it to be, you can always tell me so, and I will remove it.

And finally,

Monday, 13 August 2012

In the News

A 'friend' on Twitter pointed out that Kashmir Monitor, a daily newspaper from the Valley, had decided to carry a post from this blog. A Basic Guide to Ramazan Food in Kashmir. It appeared in the newspaper on 12 August, 2012.  

click to enlarge

However, they skipped crediting me or the blog for the post. So I decided to write to the editor to point out the oversight. Within an hour, he replied, saying that they had thought Rich Autumns was not the name of the writer and that it will be corrected on the following day. Sure enough, Monday's newspaper carried a note of regret. 
click to enlarge
And that, dear reader, is the story of how I got published as Rich Autumns.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

A Basic Guide to Ramazan Food in Kashmir

This Ramazan is the hottest and the longest we have seen in Kashmir since the armed militancy began. Typically Kashmir has longer days (the period of sunlight from dawn to dusk) than India and Pakistan. The first day of Ramazan the fast lasted from 3:55 a.m. to 7:48 p.m. 

 It isn’t easy to wake up so early on most days, and then to get up early enough in order to have a meal ready is quite another issue. Come to think of it, it’s another blessing of Ramadan that you can dine at that early an hour – in other months it would appear too cumbrous to do.

 If you are a Kashmiri or hoping to spend your Ramadan in Kashmir there are a few basics for a perfect Kashmiri Ramazan, food-wise.

 In Kashmir, just like other meals, Sehri (the pre-dawn meal) is considered incomplete without rice. In Kashmiri psyche, you are not eating at all if you are not eating rice. Or you are plainly awkward. The next step in a typical Kashmiri Sehri is tea. Not just any tea, but the special Kashmiri pink tea. Nun chai (salted tea). The tea is accompanied by the geow-dar csot (bread made with ghee). It is a Ramazan speciality in Kashmir, made only during this month. In other months, it is prepared on order.

Geow-dar csot
 There is a lot of guzzling down of water these days, knowing that the day is going to be long and hot. Or lassi (a frothy liquid made by whisking curd and water), if you like it. In Kashmir the lassi is salty, unlike its Punjabi cousin which is sweet.

 The streets are much less crowded. A lot of people don’t come out till it’s necessary. A lot of them chew meswak and spit on the road. A lot of girls take to wearing hijab for this month. The road-side eateries stay closed during the day. Even on the Khayyam road, which is famous for its barbeque shops, the shops would open only around Asr prayers (afternoon prayers). Many shops are veiled behind curtains during the day, allowing those who are not fasting to dine in secrecy. If you are observant enough, you’ll see some people talking on their phones while hovering around these shops looking for an easy entry.

 Since in Ramazan you wouldn’t be looking for mid-day snacking, it comes as no surprise that most of the street vendors open their stalls late, at around Iftaar. However, make no mistake! By that time the bakery shops in Srinagar have been swept clean of all produce. We sure,  love our bakeries. In the nooks of crowded markets, like Dalgate, the smells and sounds of frying all mix together to produce a spicy atmosphere where hawkers compete with each other for customers. Same goes for those who set up stalls outside shrines where the aromas of the fritters mix with those of the offerings brought in by the disciples. The barbeque vendors singe their spices as they fan away the smoke rising from the coals, and the pickle sellers patiently wait behind their vats of scarlet coloured pickles.

The Iftaar in most houses again follows a set pattern. Basil seeds which have been left in water till they have swollen well are mixed with water, milk and sugar, the sherbet here is called Babribeoul treish. And the mandatory dates, of course. True to the minute, the muezzins in all the mosques call out for Iftaar thrice, followed by the shrieks of kids in the mohalla doing the same (which they do out of their own goodwill, of course).

a jug of Babribeoul treish

The Iftaar is followed by dinner. And the dinner by taraweeh. The taraweeh by tea. Lipton tea, as we call it here.

 For any good deed the reward in Ramazan is multiplied by seventy. And so, charity is common in all Muslim societies. People, here, distribute dates or halva or phireen (a kind of semolina pudding) or sherbet of milk and basil seeds in mosques for Iftaar. And to the neighbours, and also to the gatherings on Shab Qadr. Watch out for these goodies! The Halva with a generous sprinkling of poppy seeds (khashkhaash) is traditionally distributed on by a csot, which acts like an eatable platter. But modernity has brought in the aluminium foil boxes and disposable plates.

There seems to be no end to the blessings in Ramadan. Allah's Apostle (SAW) said, "When Ramadan begins, the gates of Paradise are opened." May this Ramadan usher in for us a period of blessings and abundance.

PS: This post appeared on The Kashmir Monitor. Read here.