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!.