Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XXII

Ode to a Chestnut on the Ground

From bristly foliage
you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
birds
bursting with syllables,
starry
dew
below,
the heads of boys
and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
You fell,
you struck
the ground,
but
nothing happened,
the grass
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
only
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.


Pablo Neruda



Saturday, 21 December 2013

50 Words

These are 50 words for the longest night.

The night is long. And has no company. The stars are obscured by the clouds. The clouds, themselves are invisible. The moon is trapped, shedding her light sadly somewhere invisible. The shadows float. Snowflakes tremble as they silently pile up.

The longest night shall end with a white morning. 
            
Hope.


Sunday, 15 December 2013

Smoke

The barbecue is always a good excuse to get a family together. We hadn’t seen each other in while. A long while, now that we came to think of it. These days no one seems to see each other much– and no one seems to bother about not seeing each other. But the barbecue after Eid was just the opportunity. Everyone in the closest family would be invited and everyone would be there. The thought made me feel like a child again.
The second day of Eid is celebrations still in Kashmir. The shops are all closed, as is everything else. The day is long with a procession of people coming and going to give the sacrificial meat. The meat is divided into three parts, one each for the poor, relatives and family. Charity, of all places, has to begin at home. The cuts are precise and politically correct, what each household gets depends on the nearness of relation. Often, families of newly (and about to be) married couples exchange whole legs of mutton. In Kashmir, save the politics, everything is politically correct.
By the time the last guests had left and the closest of family had arrived it was late evening already. The muezzin’s call for the maghrib prayer had reminded the guests that it was late already. A few pleasantries were exchanged, tea cups were cleared and the guests allowed to leave. The kitchen looked as if a storm had passed through it. Cups and saucers piled in the sink; the pans on the stove, a dasterkhwaan hurriedly rolled up, crumbs littered on the shelves – all souvenirs of a good time.  One may thank God for the company, for people who chose to visit on Eid.
The younger ones in the house had decided to do the barbecue outside in the lawn. The adults had protested, it being too cold, them being too sick. The kids hadn’t paid attention. The gridiron was brought out from the storeroom and dusted. The skewers washed and arranged in a tray. The meat had been left marinating since afternoon. The marinade was a serious affair and no one was sure what had finally gone into it.
The gridiron was carefully balanced on a few bricks. One of its legs had rusted away. A few dried leaves started the fire and the coals burnt brightly spurred into a blue flame by the vigorous fanning of an enthusiastic cousin. Everyone drew the chairs near to the fire. Temperature takes a sudden tumult in the evenings. A kangri was passed around. A hot water bottle was quickly dunked into the blanket. Everyone settled down. The ladies huddled close on a straw mat on the grass sharing a blanket. It was almost dark and suddenly the barbecue didn’t seem like a good idea. The lights around the lawn were put on. The electric bulbs created small halos of yellow light around themselves. The cold air cut through the light, making it appear dim and distant. A second kangri was heated  with the coals from the gridiron. Someone suggested that they move into the kitchen, but no one stirred. The air though cold, was fragrant. Cold air always carries a mellow perfume.
The first batch of skewers smoked a lot, impregnating the air warmth and aroma of fat slowly melting on the rods. The meat was cold and took a long time to cook. The coals glowered red. A spoonful of ghee carefully added towards the end rounded it off and the gathering took it in greedily. It wasn’t quite Khayam, but flavourful still. The night’s chef, the nephew who had blown the coals red, smiled proudly. It’s hard to say if anyone paid attention to the taste. We were picking off from where we had left last time. Last time, when was that? Goodbyes are never said. They are only solemnized. After some time has passed, greetings become awkward and painful. We were waiving off our farewells. The barbecue was just a reason to be together. A throwback to the past, to the youth and our times together, when things in general were settled for ever. To the times before unsettling.
It was dark by then. A bluish darkness made grey by the smoke and cold. The air was gripping and the young cousins were all packed round the embers. The plates were passed around. Everyone was discussed and dismissed, the whole extended clan. Everyone was interested in knowing the future, and all the better it was, for no one likes to dwell on the past. Only the happiest memories came to mind – picnics, colleges. Weird hairstyles. Relatives who had been fashionable in the eighties. An uncontrolled laughing fit ensued. The kids looked at us in awe, surprised.

The white full moon was hanging behind the clouds. The fall’s moon shone languidly in the sky overlooking the warm smoke rising from the joyous gathering. The falling leaves rustled as they settled on the ground, where (I always like to think so) they shall lie in wait for snow. Or they may be swept away and burnt. The kangri felt warm in the hands. Somebody was going round with a second or perhaps third round of skewers. By now the careless group of youngsters had taken over the gridiron. They were disposing off the meat by themselves and laughing loudly. A visiting nephew  was telling about his college in Bangalore. How he has had to make do with the vegetarian meals served in the hostel mess, and how the simple barbecue was heaven sent.
Who were these people? World weary already! Flying without wings, perhaps.  But flying, nonetheless. Some disgruntled aunt shouted that if there were no more skewers left they might as well return inside. No point of sitting in the freezing cold. The kids ignored her.
The coals and were now getting cold. I dragged the chair farther away and lit a cigarette as people began to break the party to move inside. Falling leaves have made many a poet. Or maybe it was the moonshine that night. Clear and cold. Wistful yet content. I let the silence hang a moment. The cold wind blew over the leaves. The last embers in the furnace glowered red and turned into ash. The barbecue had been an excuse for looking over the happy autumn fields. The cold wind made eyes watery. By then, everyone had disappeared inside the house even the kids. Someone was asking for tea.
Yes, a cup of tea would be wonderful.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XXI


After Apple Picking

My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it's like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Faiz - A Translation




This past night your memory slowly wandered into my heart,
As the Spring slowly comes over a forlorn ruin,
As the breeze slowly treads through deserts,
As the sick, for no reason known, feel good.


Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Where Auburn Chinars Stand Tall - a poem

The leaves have begun to fall 
So drift gently towards the earth 
Where to us appear like knaves 
And dance upon wind's sad sails.
The colours in them, of mirth 
Of gold, like golden roads paved
Where auburn Chinars stand tall 
Overlooking the city's lost lakes.
From Dargah the tidings come
They carry a certain green leaf
Like a certain dream floating 
Hanging on to the last of hopes
Among the shades of glee
Green, and gold and autumn.
I write hope on the grey skies
With this fall's glowing red
For hope is the hue of Prayer
Which one day will be answered
And the birds that've been held for long
Will spread their wings and fly away
Like the leaves in this autumn's way.


(c) Rich Autumns

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

A Creamy Interlude

Kashmir gave Wazwan to the world. Kashmiris have tried with varying degree of success to replicate its complicated, time taking stews almost everywhere. There is also a secretly held belief that wazwan cannot be prepared anywhere other than Kashmir, that wazwan prepared anywhere else is phony and faux, and all that is bordering on dangerous fanaticism.
Traditional it is, but Kashmir is not generally resistive to culinary diversity. And if anything has been adapted into Kashmiri lifestyle better than the pointless pineapple-and-cherry-thing in wazwan it is the pastry cake! We are big about bakery anyway. There isn’t one decent bakery in Srinagar which hasn’t got its set of regulars. There are some bakeries which have become landmarks. There are some that have history running through them.
Two decades ago, in the terrible nineties, pineapple pastries were quite the vogue. No elite party was complete without them. The pastry itself was a simple affair – in fact, no more than a miniature layered cake – two layers of whipped cream between cake and a triangular piece of pineapple at the top. These pastries were the currency of social gatherings, being exchanged on every occasion deemed worthy. Every student passing out of class tenth would get at least a dozen of these from some close relative. Not-so-close relatives simply (and rather indifferently) turn up with a bundle of plain cakes. Every wedding would see a large round copper tray, majma, carrying pineapple pastries on saucers painstakingly placed by some aunt with a flower-like name. (Almost all families in Kashmir have at least one lady nicknamed Lily or Rosy for no special reason).
Towards the end of nineties, quite suddenly, the wazwan became more extravagant than was warranted, even dramatic – food servings increased to proportions they were not intended and the whole affair became messier and dearer. When the wasteful wave subsided, things came back to normal. The humble pineapple pastry too gained a few layers like an obese drunkard, wobbly at the top. Somebody, around that time, had the genius of adding a cherry too next to the pineapple wedge. And even though it did nothing to improve the taste and looked like an overlooked grammatical error the trend caught on. In the “Bakery” section, nineties were the time of cream rolls and cream puffs. Coconut macaroons and bite sized biscuits with a jam smeared centre. As the nineties rolled out, the pine apple pastry fell out of favour. Its richer patrons shifted to richer options – like the black forest which after much experimentation was perfected in a Srinagar bakery with the correct amount of shavings.
Like all things, pineapple pastries outlived their fanciful trend. Today the humble looking pastry sits next to its more glamorous successors. The bakers in Srinagar have been quick to introduce truffles and trifles and a whole range of products around walnuts. (In one case, there was also a carrot cake which didn’t quite serve the purpose of anything.) All this, while the greater debate still is: whether the price hike in girdah is justified!

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XX

Strangers. Everywhere.

The gathering was singing "Ya Nabi Salaam Alaika" in a large chorus. Together, like one person with a large voice.

When the prayers finished people wrapped their arms around friends, relatives, people they knew. No one said anything to the stranger, the alien, the faraway wayfarer. He waited for someone to hug him too. But no one came and he went away.

No one hugs a stranger even on Eid.

He got his shoes polished. And walked away.

***
"I've decided. You and I are going to this coffee shop before we go for dinner." the youthful voice of his colleague was telling the stranger. Usually he is an annoying brat, but today he was uncharacteristically friendly.

"Uhm. Are you sure?"

"Yes."

The brat was a young person, with no care in the world. The stranger had known him from work and kept his distance initially. He had had a string of phone calls, but no one had actually called him. The stranger was a gust of wind, with no origin.

He looked at his shoes. They were still neatly polished.

***
The coffee shop the brat had chosen was a long distant away. The stranger tried to keep up with the brat's antics. He realised as a traveller he had to play along. The Cheshire Cat's wisdom played along too. "If you don't know where you want to go, then it doesn't matter which path you take".

He followed the brat to the coffee house. By the time they reached, it was late evening. The wind was cool and murky with the city's pollution. A few dusty plants in over sized pots waited for them at the side of the road. People were going up and down the pavement. A merry looking group was celebrating inside the glass walls of the coffee shop. A demure maiden was nodding to her lover on another table. A man with pointy eye-brows was talking on the phone. A few waiters were shuffling on their toes. 

They ordered coffee. The brat asked the stranger where he came from? What did he do? How did they celebrate Eid in his place?

The stranger smiled. He told of his home, his friends, his food.

An hour passed.

When they left, the stranger paid the bill. The money felt light, useless and abundant.

He looked at his shoes. A layer of dust had covered his neatly polished shoes.

The dinner place was a famous restaurant. The brat was a vegetarian. The stranger felt sorry for him.

“Shouldn’t you order something mutton, not chicken? Feels more like Eid, I suppose.” the brat suggested.

“What will you have?” the stranger wanted to know. Alien in the city, he didn’t know that vegetarians avoid places with a common kitchen for veg and non-veg.

“I’ll see. You go first.”

The stranger ordered. The meal was good. It felt like Eid. A strange, lonely Eid. An Eid held together by long distant phone calls and wistful greetings.

The young brat had an ice cream. The only thing he decided he could have.

The stranger hadn’t had anyone to accompany him for dinner in months. He realised he hadn’t had dinner in months.

It felt like Eid.


***

He looked down at his shoes. They had gathered dust. 

Monday, 30 September 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XIX


Walking hand in hand like old friends.
Sitting together when one gets tired.
Returning when one can’t walk any longer.
At home, together again.
Looking out for each other.
Timetables. Food times.
Medicines.
And making a joke about it all.
But most of all, hearing stories.
From long ago to the last moment.
The wisdom never ends.
No one wants it to.
And then, one is gone.
The stories are left behind.
Like fragrance of flowers.

Grandmothers.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Apple Picking in Shopian




Autumn is fast approaching in Kashmir. The chinar, though green yet in September, is slowly migrating to darker, brighter hues. Soon it would be brown, and golden -  rich with autumn's presence. The point being not missed by the apple growers. Autumn is the richest season in Kashmir when saffron and apples abound. 

Under the weak branches of apple trees there are four fresh graves somewhere in Shopian. Shopian is famous for its apples. The growers there quip, "Sopore has the quantity, Shopian has the quality." (Sopore being the largest apple producing district in Kashmir. Even though the production is huge, the quality of apples from Shopian is considered superior to Sopore's).

For the past fifteen  days Shopian has been under curfew. There is a curfew for every season in Kashmir. It's the government's escape route to peace. Like fire exits in high rise buildings. A battalion of padded army men  imported from India is placed on every nook and corner to enforce peace, while the police handles all the PR stuff.

The curfew this time is in response to the killing of one man and partially blinding one girl in Shopian. Before this the government curfewed Ramban when the BSF fired on unarmed people and killed six people. (The number of deaths was contested by the Chief Minister on Twitter who admonished the media for misquoting the number. He put the toll at 4). Before Ramban a similar incident happened in Bandipore. There is of course no pattern to the killings, that would be dwelling onto a conspiracy theory. They do it mainly because they can, and then get off with it. No questions that require answers are asked. The government, as a matter of routine, orders an enquiry. The people, as a matter of routine, smirk at the enquiry. The results of the enquiry will be heard, if at all, when the incident has faded from public memory.

Meanwhile the curfew continues and soon people will run out of stock of sustenance. Then the government, like a movie villain, will present its more merciful side and lift the curfew. The people will come out of homes, some lorries carrying provisions would be allowed into the town and the people will be 'allowed' to buy provisions before being locked under curfew again. Of course, the humiliation is not lost on the people. In protest, the people will keep businesses shut and schools and offices closed. The government will not bother much about this. It is just one of those things that keep Kashmir on the edge. 

No one knows who these boys were, except that they died. One of them was a fruit dealer waiting for a consignment of fruit boxes. One of them was looking forward to opening a new shop in the main market. Little things look so miscalculated in the grand plot of life. One of them was newly married too. 


***
The apples are picked by hand, carefully dropping them in waiting baskets and buckets held  by eager children and family members. The apples are placed on sheets spread out in the orchards and are cautiously packed. Packed to be sent away, in absence of permissions to trade anywhere else, to India. Most of the best quality fruit of Kashmir is exported. 

The apples turn out each year - red as ever. In this season of mellow fruitfulness, we paint ours bright crimson. Fresh, every time. Every time, they make their way to India.


Saturday, 7 September 2013

Cupfuls of Hope


Last year, 2012, among other tragedies that Kashmir faced one that left an immensely dark scar was the burning of the shrine of Ghous-ul-Azam Dastgeer. The founder of the Qadri silsila of Sufism is highly revered in Kashmir. Thousands of people would turn out on the eleven day annual Urs at  Dastgeer Sahab’s shrine. Khanyar where the shrine was located is a small neighbourhood not very far away from Dal Lake. It has a little market place selling all sorts of traditional copperware, including among other things samovars. During the Urs the market place is sealed off by police barricades allowing no traffic inside so that the whole area can be cleaned and used as a mosque. Prayer mats are spread on the roads and the whole area is divided into two unequal parts for men and women.
 For the Urs people bring in all sorts of offerings to be distributed among the attendees. Charity and generosity are two of the most prized virtues in Islam. So are feeding travellers and distributing food. The annual Urs follows the lunar calendar and Islamic Months and has been, for the past few years, celebrated in early – mid spring when the air is cold and rains frequent. The spirit of the Urs, though, hasn’t dampened. People still turn out, with hearts full of hope and eyes full of teary prayers.
A man in a neat, washed Khan suit emerges from the crowd carrying a large copper samovar. A kid follows him closely with a plastic basket of cups, without saucers. A second kid, slightly larger than the first, carries a jute bag of freshly made Girdah, made on order. The three of them are immediately surrounded by a crowd of men, women and children. As no shops are open they retreat under an awning of a shop near the shrine and prepare to serve tea. The embers are glowing red in the samovar. The man draws a small polythene bag from his pockets from which he takes out a piece of coal and drops it in the samovar. It sparkles and makes a crackling sound. Hot vapours of the tea escape from its spout. He wipes the sweat off his forehead with the towel he was using to hold the samovar’s hot chain.
They are ready to serve. 

The “Kahim chai” as it is called (literally “tea of the Eleventh” – Eleventh being the number associated with Dastgeer Sahab) is generally richer than everyday noon-chai. Prepared with the love and reverence for the saint, the tea is mixed with copious amounts of butter and shavings of coconut. The butter floats on the top of the cup, when poured, as a layer of  fragrant green oil.
People jostle for the cups. Some bring their own cups – they were perhaps anticipating that someone would surely bring tea. A young man from a nearby nader-monj stall brings a small flask to carry a few cups of tea for his cohorts at the stall. He takes a few girdas which the kid suspiciously hands him. Ruckus. Some unruly person pushes the man and pinches him to draw his attention. That scares the kid with cups. He exchanges places with his brother and goes over to give the bread. Within ten minutes most of the tea is gone. The man gently nudges the samovar to stir any settled coconut shavings.
An old woman clucthing a white burqa comes forward. The man pours her a cup of tea. The little kid hands her a girdah with a smile. She pauses as she puts her hands into the pocket of her pheran and brings out a handful of shireen and dates from the shrine “Meyoun Dastgeer karnei raechh” (May my Dastgeer look after you) she says.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XVIII

Compensation.

For each ecstatic instant
We must an anguish pay
In keen and quivering ratio
To the ecstasy.

For each beloved hour
Sharp pittances of years,
Bitter contested farthings
And coffers heaped with tears.

~Emily Dickinson


Monday, 26 August 2013

Kashmir, Kabul, Kishtwar

Kashmir's blogosphere much like its biosphere is a much debated topic. In times of less news and more tweets it becomes the media's favourite thing to discuss. Even Army Generals are called upon to comment and answer questions which essentially sound like, "Why are Kashmiris tweeting this way and not that way?" "See, this guy went and had barbecue on the banks of Dal. Aren't these pictures threat to National Security of India?"

Somewhere last week, we decided to take the things for a spin. In this limited blogosphere where politics flows on high tide all the year round, a few of us decided to tweak the norms a bit. With some cohorts we found in Afghanistan (of all places) we hit upon the idea that  blogging about food may not be such a bad idea. Every place has its tribe of self-indulgent food bloggers. We have none. That's not fair!

So was born the idea of "Samavar | Food trails from Kashmir to Kabul". It all started when a blogger from Kishtwar said that she had nothing to left to do on the ninth consecutive day of curfew in Kishtwar, and when a blogger from Srinagar suggested that she read some food blogs. One tweet led to another, and bang! we were proposing a collective food blog. 

Samavar came into being on an exceptionally slow internet in Afghanistan and a curfew in Kishtwar. 

Here's the  first post on Samavar written by me:

"While we gather up stories to share as delightful as the tea in its bosom. From Kashmir to Kabul, there might be travellers coming along soon. They would like some tea.
Or Kahwa, please. Drop in some saffron, just to remind them of the colours of our company when they have left.
That among the shadows of everything that the world has given us, we have kept a delightful kitchen going on. Where food and love abound, and the dastarkhwan is spread far and wide. We thank God for that. And for the stories we have created in between.
Arrange the breads in trays. Yes, the sheermaal and naans.
Everyone likes a little something to go with tea. And telling stories, too. The travellers are fond of them. The silent locals too. They carry a wealth of never heard histories with them. You may find some here, near where we sit with our samovar – in the gardens of Srinagar and on the banks of Chenab too,beyond Khyber under the fearless open skies of Kabul.
Light up these lamps. The embers in the samovar are glowing red. Finally, it’s time.
Let’s serve."
Other contributors to Samavar include Francesca Recchia, Nashrah Batool, Sahar, TavseefM and Marryam H Reshii.
Happy reading.

Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XVII

Srinagar is hot these days. Hot like a girda just poked out of the oven by the local kandur-bai. And as its Ramazan, so most probably the kandur-bai is poking out geowdar czot. But hot as they come! With all that people are still fasting. Living life on small doses on nun-chai and larger ones of treish. And wondering whether its going to be a 29 day or 30 day Ramadan.


After a long and tiring day of fasting, home is where babri-beol is. The throat is parched by the end of the day. A slight giddiness in the head when you have spent the day arguing at workplace. ACs are largely non existent in Kashmir.  At Iftar time, under the whirring of a fan, waiting for the Imam to shout "Iftar, Iftar, Iftar" before one can grab a glass of babri-beoul and down it. To refresh the soul and in general bring life and light back.  And relax in the soft sound of the little seeds being chewed upon.

A man clears his throat on the mosque loudspeaker and calls out the Azaan.

May Allah accept our fasts. Aameen.




Thursday, 18 July 2013

Prayers

These hordes of people coming out of the mosques, what did they pray for? What did they ask God for? Of all the bounties, hanging like ripe fruit on low branches, which ones did they aim for?

There is a downward sloping path from the mosque. A middle aged man walks hurriedly towards the door. He is already late for prayers. The congregation has just started. In the last few rows people have not yet started their prayers. He joins in second to last row, and quickly raises his hands to his ears. The gathering falls and rises in unison. Almost a hundred people in the large freshly painted hall of the mosque. The green and the white sparkling clean. "Allah" written next to the name of His beloved, "Muhammad" (Peace be upon him). The imam, a young fellow with a high pitched voice and fluent recitation leading the prayers.

Ahead of this man, is an old man. White beard, soft hands, a faded face. The old man is slow in his movements. He only prays the first raka'at standing. He doesn't stand for the taraweeh. He can't. He looks at the people towering over him and adjusts his knees. After eight raka'ats as the crowd thins, he moves on the first row.

When the prayers end, there is a brief moment of silence. Just a few seconds before people start to leave. Some touch their foreheads to the ground, some raise their hands to heaven. Some gather the dust of the mosque. A few say Salam and leave. Some simply wink at the imam.

In that brief moment, the whole congregation prays. Small individual prayers. Prayers for themselves and their families. The old white man, raises his arms high and prays for his sons and daughters in an affected voice. His deep breathing makes his prayer audible. He hardly asks anything for himself. One is sorry to overhear such a private whisper sent to God.

I imagine, after all is prayed and done, the prayers would rise towards Heaven like mist disappears slowly from mountain tops in a Spring morning. Prayers filled with hopes and desire. With unrestraint and abandon.With courage and fear. With anticipation and regret. What all must a million prayers fulfill! What do the people pray for? Those who leave early with quick prayers and those who stay till the end and leave after the imam. Do people who attend the congregations to answer a duty, fall in love with them mid way? Do their prayers take on a different colour after that? Do neighbours ever pray for each other? For the man who was standing next to you during the prayer? The imam makes an effort - he prays for the whole congregation. For Kashmir. And then in continuation for Palestine too.

The lively bunch of kids at the back of the mosque have it easy. They tick off the things they need to ask God for - good marks, better than expected results and the like. Not everyone knows what to ask for. Some people cant speak out their prayers. They have lost the words for them in the mist. They leave it to God's will. He already knows.

While returning the middle aged man stops to buy himself a pack of cigarettes from the last open shop of the mohalla. He stops under a street light to light it. And moves away.



Friday, 28 June 2013

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Native

Butterflies carry the colours on them
Of the flowers they live on
The buds they bloom with their love
Long after spring has gone.
They dance in summer's air
When the high rays of sun are drawn
Till the golden light no more shines
And the wind is cold with autumn's dawn
On wilted flowers of past love
They bring the spring along
Then fold their wings and peacefully die
By our winter's cold thorn.
With tired wings, much coloured
The native returns home after long
With hues it has carried from far
To the place where its colours belong
From each wing a flower blooms
On each petal lingers a song.
And so in each sublime spring morn
The butterfly and the flower bloom along.


Friday, 7 June 2013

Tea With Mother

(Part of this post was written in April, soon after the tragic road accidents of school buses.)

This March, schools opened to some really bad news. Usually there are three months of winter vacations. The vacations are always a hurried affair. The government on a cold wintry day issues a sudden notice announcing a  date to close the schools. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Three months later the kids reappear in school uniforms, in their old chairs with their 'winter homework' done and ready for 'submission'.

These winters passed - cold and frigid, as winters usually pass in Kashmir. The spring that followed, however, has not been a pleasant one. With continuous curfews and strikes, Kashmir breathed small conscious breaths of life between an imposed normalcy and an assumed curfew. There is peace, if  you perceive it through a lens man's glare. But the pictures themselves are silent. They show the world as it passes by the soundproof glasses of high-profile cars, in glimpses and snaps. But outside the car, the world is neither quiet nor peaceful. Just like a samovar, it hides burning embers inside to keep itself brewing.


***

On 4th April, a school bus skidded off the road and fell into a gorge in Kashmir. Nine kids died in the accident. Apparently, the bus driver had lost control over the bus. When rescue teams arrived, seven kids were found dead already.

A few weeks before that another young man, Tahir Sofi, was killed. A probe is pending. Tahir wasn't the first young man to die this year. In the weeks following Afzal Guru's hanging dozens were injured. A few died. These fresh martyrs have no names. No one tries to find an excuse for their deaths.

In 2010, the great summer of bloodshed, a hundred and twenty people, most of them below thirty, were killed. Many of them were just school going teenagers. They still had schools to attend, degrees to achieve and jobs to look for. Things that occur to normal people. In normal places.

Painful stories are left behind. Greater Kashmir reported the story of a father who seeing his daughter had already died, tried to save his son. He missed his daughter's funeral only to have his son's funeral too. Both the kids died. Swathed in blood and bandages, their young tender bodies were brought home and handed over to their mothers. There shall be no more school, no more homework, no worrying for tests. No life. No marriages for daughters, no weddings for sons. Destiny in a sleight of hand has wiped out an immense dimension from their lives.

In 2010, the mother of one of the many kids who died applied henna on his little lifeless hands. In Kashmir, boys do not decorate their hands with henna, except on their wedding when house ladies take turns to apply henna on the groom's little finger of the right hand. The mother would never get that chance. She seized that opportunity from fate, before sending the little bridegroom away forever. The father of another youth who died that year, wanted the mourners to sing wedding songs. He too was sending his son away. He wanted the farewell to be one filled with prayers of hope and happiness.

More than a thousand youngsters (many of them in their early teens) are booked under PSA. When the appear before court, the first argument is not the offence. It is the age of the detainee.

On 22 May this year, Suhail was critical after receiving pellets in the head. Two things. One that he is 19. Second, that the police and paramilitary shot him in the head. Shot to kill.

***


It is as if the last twenty years of turmoil have cast a long, dark shadow. They carnage hasnt stopped yet. The summer so far has been peaceful. Surely the number of tourists will go up, and that being a new criteria of measuring normalcy in Kashmir, the government will bask in the feeble sunlight of a 'normal' Kashmir. But normalcy in Kashmir is like an eel, it slips the moment you spot it. It's never too long before it is lost under the slush pile of a thousand issues.

This story of thousands of young men and women of Kashmir, is much like the story of Kashmir itself: the valley too beautiful for itself, located at the wrong coordinates of the globe, ravaged by war and torn across by an extremely uncertain future.; its young people, born at the wrong time, faced with little prospects and little hope of doing well at home.

***

Saifullah, an engineer by education, died as a militant of Hizbul Mujahideen. He had asked his mother prepare a cup of tea for him while he went out. He never returned. His mother kept  waiting with the tea.

If we were to go about Kashmir, in the evening just as the ladies are preparing tea, we would find many such mothers waiting with tea cups. Their sons don't come home for tea. Or for anything else. For these sons, there was no linking them to any organisation - who were they? what were they?, we do not know. Many of them were taken by the armed forces, often at night, and then we know that they vanished or "disappeared"  and that their mothers are still waiting. Some of them have been waiting with such cups for more than twenty years. I am sure they wash and wipe them, and don't let any dust get on the cups of their sons. I am also sure that they still keep the tea brewing for them. What if the cups are never filled again? What if they are? What will these mothers tell the sons if they ever return? If these mothers were to suddenly come across these sons they have been waiting for decades? If we go prying and eaves dropping, we would hardly bear the pain that will flavour their teas. Some of these mothers assemble in a park in Srinagar once every month or so, and remind the world of the embers that keeps their worlds on fire.

Twenty years is a long time. But a lifetime is even longer. I pray Suhail, who is still in hospital, recovers to have tea with his mother.


Thursday, 30 May 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XV

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.



- Emily Dickinson



Friday, 17 May 2013

A Hundred Thousand Things

What is it that brings on a train wreck? A thousand jarring sounds, all insignificant in themselves, clash against the brain and produce an explosion. The brain, like a mirror, crashes into a thousand pieces of as many shapes. All this while I am walking on a road, buying apples for after dinner. I hand over the money and walk away. For a briefest moment of time, I worry about over paying the fruit vendor. Another tiny piece flakes off.



I lock myself in a tiny room, alone. The city is full of strange noises, unknown people with unknown habits. I no longer understand what they say. I miss when they address me. Are they from another planet? How did we meet? When did it all begin? Was it like this forever?

It wasn't. Before the strangers, apples and the wreck, the world was a happier place. I too had a place in it, and so had some other wearers of worn out shoes. But we walked too long a distance without a map, and the spirit of wandering exhausted itself. When the shoes were reduced to bare soles and lace, the ground became all too real. The train made a sharp whistle before the tracks screeched under the weight of a pair of patchy shoes and two lost feet.

The cacophony outside is no match for the one inside. They say a cup of coffee does wonders. Some say tea. Sleep. Milk. Parle G. They are all placebos. The real medicine is elusive, if it exists at all.  Like elixir. But nothing that works on the brain works on the heart. And, anything that pacifies the heart is rejected by the brain. There can't be any harmony. It is a train wreck, after all. Both try to save themselves.

So, in such weary shoes the dreams return home, exhausted by a single moment in a long day. They sit quietly for a while. The jarring sounds have worn them further down. With great difficulty they detach themselves from the soles of the boots to which they have become attached during the long walk.

I slump in a couch. These last few words escape the train wreck. I ask them what brought it on in the first place, "A hundred thousand things," they reply.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

"Dil-e-Man Musafir-e-Man"




An attempt at a translation:

My heart, my way farer
It has been ordained again
That you and I be sent away
Holler out street after street
Look into alien avenues
To come across any clues
Of our beloved’s messenger.
And to ask every stranger
The way back to our home.
In these cities of unknown men
We crawl through hours long
Tell this traveller a word
Sing that stranger a song.
Oh, how should I explain to you
The misery of the night that befalls
We’d have thought it a blessing
Just to have been considered
Death would not have mattered hence
Had we to die only once.


Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Thank God for Little Pleasures - XIV

For the time spent walking hand-in-hand on snowy paths along the Dal. For sitting alone for hours, staring at the blank whiteness. White flakes which pile softly on the low wall and the high tree tops, and obscure the world around.

A warm fragrance rises from the smoke of barbecue. A shivering youth fans the red embers on the gridiron. The grey smoke vanishes in the grey sky.


Give yourself some company while the snow lasts.

And some barbecue. 

(Photo Courtesy: Sair Mir)

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Feathers and Dust

In these times of curfew, people in Srinagar have been caged inside their homes. “Hartals” and ‘Curfews’ like sale-cum-exhibitions happen every now and then in Kashmir. Anyone found venturing outside risks being interrogated, chased, beaten, or shot. So, applying the less used laws of common sense, people sit inside their homes. Wondering as every car passes by, who could it be? Why is he on the road? Where is he going? Is it an Army vehicle? As homely pigeons sit under eaves of roofs of houses listening into the conversations of people they understand the grim situations of the city. They learn that in times of curfew people come to roost in living rooms and kitchens. They pass on copious amounts of gossip and a milk less variety of tea. They eat bread frugally and rice generously for days in curfew are infinite.

In the inner lanes of downtown Srinagar there is some commotion, which is quite the norm, and very well too. Any day without commotion in down town sends up a fever in the authorities, and the people wonder if times are really changing in Srinagar and changing for what? So downtown with its pigeons and all is an area of a lot of activity. Pigeon rearing is an ancient activity in Srinagar. It is a peaceful activity too, at least as much peaceful as the special peace laws imposed on the land allow. People, boys usually, who are fond of domesticating pigeons usually are very possessive of their birds. They are bred to match colour and qualities (like swift fliers, high fliers, etc.) and then sold at very high prices to other pigeon-keepers. If the pigeons go missing from any one coop, things get ugly.  Often there are ugly mohalla wide confrontations. A lot of swearing is exchanged in lieu of the missing pigeons and as many accusations charged and dismissed. Normally the local government does not interfere in this activity. Any charge of pigeon theft is promptly denied, and it lies on the pigeon rights activists and lawyers specialising in this branch of law to prove otherwise.  The government may if it considers necessary, order an Enquiry Commission and then trash its report. It happens all too often. The pigeons and their thieves are never found.

Arif, the pigeon keeper has lost two of his best fliers. The last time he saw them was after Friday prayers, just as the boys were about to begin pelting stones on the CRPF vehicles. He raised his eyes to see the pigeons perched on the antennae over his balcony and counted all six silhouettes. Then the pigeons took flight. And in the evening when he went to close the coop for the night only four returned. There was no cat in the vicinity and he found no feathers. The pigeons seemed to have disappeared without trace.

The pigeons fly in circles over the neighbourhood. They don’t go very far. Sometimes they’d fly high and perch on trees or overhead wires. But usually they returned to sit in the shade under the eaves of the attic of Arif’s house. His pigeons were not trained to do anything else. They were swift fliers but nothing more. In his neighbourhood there were only two boys who kept pigeons.

In Maisuma the daily wagers gather everyday beneath the awning of a disused hardware shop and wait for someone to call. The CRPF men keep strict patrol. Invisible eyes keep peering out of helmets and armoured vans all the time. In general, the CRPF wallah looked very bored. Like a wanton apparition he seemed misplaced, and to add to his misery he looked about fully aware of his misplacement. He chewed Nevla tobacco which came in two rupees pouches incessantly. The gun weighed heavy on his shoulders and he was acutely trying to distract himself with the people haggling for oranges at the nearby cart. That day he was not imposing a curfew. He was just standing there because someone had asked him to.

A pigeon flew on to the wires above him. His morose reverie was broken. He raised his gun to shoo the pigeon away. But the pigeon was not interested in the threats a sundry man in a helmet was issuing from somewhere down below him. The pigeon did not see them as threats at all. From its perch above he must have appeared like some fool poking the air with a queer looking stick. The pigeon looked at the city with red eyes.


Meanwhile, the old daily wager is perturbed. His noble profession of looking for a new work every day has been challenged by some authorities in the Assembly.  He sighs at the new competition. “These newbies and wannabes,” he says. They have no clue. A man in a plush grey suit with white shirt and no tie has screamed from the senatorial pews that he too is a daily wager. The daily wager is amused. He isn’t outraged. He seeks company and likes it. The news has reached him late. He chuckles at the pace his world moves.

The daily wager is a dusty old man. He has grown beyond his age in numbers like so many in the conflict. The years seem to have escaped him. The start and the end are all that remain. The rest of the memories are a jumbled mess of events for the daily wager. He only knew the amount of work he had lost. He sighed at the colossal loss it had been. All of it.

Just then his eye caught the CRPF man poking at the pigeon. He hoped the pigeon wouldn’t fly away. He sighed at the thought, again.

Oddly he realised that he had never called himself a daily wager. He wasn’t paid his wages daily. He wondered if that was any different.  He had to negotiate for them every day. On days like these he may get hired. He may even do his work professionally. On other days, he would find no takers. People, even those who could hire him, wouldn’t. No one wants to spend the money, you may not earn tomorrow . He realised that his grounds are even weaker. He realised that he wasn’t essential. In Kashmir, no one is.

A bus conductor was calling people for Dalgate and Batwara. A tired looking group of people got into the bus, followed by some labourers from India. The bus left slowly and a number of small cars followed. He checked his pockets for change. There was none.

****

Arif doled out the grain.  A small stainless steel for each pigeon was his usual measure. An occasional bulbul or mynah would join in the feast. He counted four bowls, and stopped. There were only four left. He threw the bowl back into sack of rice. Hesitated, and with a sigh, brought out two more.

The pigeon hadn’t gone away. His fellow para-trooper threw a stick at the wires above him. The pigeon did not see the stick and it hit on the wings. Both of them were surprised how well had he aimed. They laughed knowing that there was no skill involved. Throwing sticks for shooing pigeons is not gallant. The pigeon fell down and died.

The daily wager looked at the setting sun. There was a large orange dot in a crimson sky behind the old buildings of Lal Chowk. The Srinagar he once knew was another day past; a new city was shaping up. No one wanted to be a part of this city. It was filled with strange and sudden noises. And it had no pigeons. The daily wager threw away his cigarette and combed his hair with his fingers. The gravel beneath his feet made a crushing sound as he jumped from his seat by the side of the road and walked away. He felt unusually angry at the Assembly mayhem. Humiliated.


The daily wagers do not shoot pigeons for survival. For those who have nothing to do, there is ample sport to be had in the spoils of an ungainly war. The pigeons stay close to their coops.  They only disappear for a while. Some people say that they circle their own houses for seven days and then come back. The ones you see on the branches have stayed to sing the songs of lamentations. But sadly the pigeons don’t sing. They only coo in their ruined coops of how red the skies have become since their last flight. It is no pleasure for a homely pigeon to fly in a red sky. And under such red skies, the daily wagers must go out to earn their handful and return with a handful of feathers and dust. 

Friday, 29 March 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XIII


“I sit beside the fire and think 
Of all that I have seen

Of meadow flowers and butterflies
In summers that have been



Of yellow leaves and gossamer
In autumns that there were
With morning mist and silver sun
And wind upon my hair



I sit beside the fire and think
Of how the world will be
When winter comes without a spring 
That I shall ever see



For still there are so many things
That I have never seen
In every wood in every spring
There is a different green



I sit beside the fire and think
Of people long ago
And people that will see a world
That I shall never know



But all the while I sit and think
Of times there were before
I listen for returning feet 
And voices at the door” 
― J.R.R. Tolkien