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)