Thursday, 28 February 2013

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XII

The Dal Lake with all its dense algae, never ending weeds, and thickened waters is a wonder. It is a far cry from what we are told it used to be. But it is beautiful. Of course, it is still beautiful. 

On a unusually quiet autumn afternoon, you sit motionless on the banks of the Dal and concentrate on the sound of the water as it slaps the rocky wall. The deep rippling voice of the lake, like a sagacious grandparent, speaking to you. The Dal has been a witness of Kashmir. Under the mass of algae and weeds the spirit of the Dal lies waste. It bears a witness to the daily struggle of Kashmir in its innumerable forms, from dawn to sunset.

In the golden sunlight the sun is slowly sinking behind the houseboats. The boatmen are mooring their boats. An elderly couple, a group of old friends, and a lonesome photographer stand quietly waiting for the sun to slowly change its colours. A few noisy cars, a group of famished dogs and a few army men pass by. The sun has gone and the waves rise to bid it good bye. A few fountains lit up. A white moon hangs low.

Beneath the algae, the spirit of the lake sleeps.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Scarlet Letter

After Afzal Guru was executed the Home Ministry of India took the trouble to tell its media that it had over reached itself in humanitarian causes, and informed the family of Guru via Speed Post. Speed Post being the ministry’s choicest mode of communication in all matters of life and death. This extremely generous measure of India came as a surprise to many Indians who suddenly found their Collective Conscience revolting. Some others praised the charitable nature of the act and wondered wouldn't a telegram have been more judicious in these times of financial difficulty. Others complained that old regular mail would have been expedient and gone a step ahead to represent India. Still others complained of minor headaches and heartaches.

In all possibility the Speed Post did not speed enough. His family claimed that they have received no mails, but the news reached them through television. The uncanny celebrations in India were due to their family member's death. This much they understood. 

There was at least one voice in Kashmir which said that the letter should not have been written, and that the news should have been broken by the local government. That was the government itself. The government was camping in Srinagar, keeping people under curfew, to make sure everyone was just waiting for the letter. The letter itself was nowhere to be found, because post offices are closed on Sundays. A few were cynical. They smelled an Indian conspiracy in the delayed letter. It was, however, laid to rest when some troll of Twitter pointed out that even if it is a conspiracy from India, it is still smaller in magnitude than the conspiracies of ISI. ISI conspiracies being the reason for sundry floods and earthquakes in India. One of the rules of collective Indian conscience, everything Indian must have a similar and more sinister Pakistani variant.

Of course, by Sunday the much awaited letter was irrelevant, like a guest who had arrived after the feast. Everyone knew of the hanging by then. India's collective conscience was burping  on TV and farting in press conferences. A few were found protesting at Jantar Mantar, but on being discovered to be Kashmiris they were promptly beaten and arrested.

On 10th February the scarlet letter hadn't arrived in Sopore. On 11th February, when the valley was under curfew, it was delivered. No one interviewed the brave postman who (ironically) risked his life to deliver the letter. Perhaps it was delivered by a posse of policemen, which is plausible because they are the only ones who could reach Guru's house. The letter presented itself and it was instantly found that they had hung the wrong man. "Afjal Guru" the letter insisted was to be hanged, but Afzal had already died. Also, as it turned out, the letter was not a letter at all, it was a memo. Why should jailers bother themselves with spellings and writing etiquette anyways? Or decency for that matter.

The letter was not stamped by any one, as if stamping would have actually mattered. It was signed by the Jail Superintendent and was only for "information and further action". Further action being folding it and storing it away.

This was duly done by the Gurus. And a thousand other Kashmiris.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A Gujjar, His Buffalo and Ghee - An Excerpt from Lawrence's "Valley of Kashmir"

Walter R. Lawrence who was the "Settlement Commisioner" of "Kashmir and Jammu State" during the time of Maharaja Pratab Singh wrote a detailed account of the valley of Kashmir in his book "The Valley of Kashmir". This volume deals with "subjects of general interest". 

I came across these passages in his book regarding trade in Maharaja's Kashmir. Of all that was exported from Kashmir to India and other places, the most important item was Ghee. Its value in trade far exceeded that of shawls and timber, something one would easily guess in respect of Kashmir. 

" Ghi is by far the most important article of the export trade of Kashmir, and is made chiefly by the pastoral Gujars and the nomad goatherds, who find the mountains of Kashmir a convenient and cheap resort, as the forests of India become more and more closed to the destructive buffalo and goat. The trade in ghi is entirely in the hands of middlemen, chiefly Panjabis, and the producer is at their mercy. There is still room for the expansion of this trade, and forest conservancy need not in Kashmir cause any serious diminution in the area of grazing-land. There can be no doubt that the Gujars with their buffaloes and the Bakkrwals with their goats cause great and wanton injury to the forests, nor that the grazing tax of Rs. 1.40 per milk buffalo and Rs. 5 per hundred head of goats is an inadequate payment for the grazing and the damage caused thereby to trees. But Kashmir is a favourite haunt of the graziers, and even if forest conservancy be made stricter and grazing fees be enhanced, buffaloes and goats will still be brought. " (Page 392)

Lawrence further notes the following figures of exports  of Ghi: (page 388)
Year               Amount in Rs.
1886-87          9,19,219
1887-88         11,99,048
1888-89         13,15,862
1889-90         15,49,744
1890-91         14,55,813
1891-92         15,79,640
1892-93         16,58,172

(Note: this was the amount in currency as given in the book which was published in 1895. Adjusted for inflation the figures would be far greater. )

The price of Ghi as noted by Lawrence is found on page 245:

"Ghi used to sell at 4 seers per Rupee. Now sells at 3 or 2.5 seers."

"Kashmir produces a large quantity of ghi (Kashmiri rogan), and though cows and goats furnish a part of this ' butter of India,' the great proportion of ghi is made from the milk of the buffalo. It has been the policy of the rulers of Kashmir to encourage the Gujars to take up their abode in the valley. Exemption from forced labour and an assessment in cash have induced these nomads to settle down, and all around the valley on the
fringe of the forest the flat-topped Gujars' huts, hidden in maize crops, may be seen. The Gujar cares little for his hut or his fields. He calls himself the lord of the forests, and directly the snows have melted on the high mountains he and his family, putting on their best clothes, hurry off with the buffaloes to the heights. There they live a healthy gipsy life in wigwams, and make butter. This butter is bought up by Panjab traders, who convert the butter into ghi. In the summer months, when the grass is rich, 40 seers of butter will yield 32 seers of ghi. The middleman, of course, makes all the profit, and he increases his ghi by adulteration. Into 8 seers of ghi he will put 2 seers of walnut oil, but as walnut oil is now rising in price this form of adulteration will possibly cease. When the middleman receives the butter from the Gujar he salts it, and sometimes keeps it two months before he makes it into ghi. All Gujars are slaves of the middleman, by virtue of the rekh, or system of advances. I have often urged the Gujars to set themselves free and to participate in the rise in the price of ghi, but the Kashmiri Gujar is as stupid and slow as his friend and companion the buffalo. It is touching to notice how absolutely bound up in his buffalo the Gujar is. He thinks of nothing else and cares for nothing else. "(page 360)