Sunday, 14 December 2014

To the Stranger who asked for Prayers

We had been silent for coffee shops were not quite our thing yet.
The coffee was gaping at us from large porcelain cups, uncomfortable and quiet.

The conversation drifted from one thing to another. Arundhati Roy said that when people meet only the small things are said, the big things remain unsaid. Lurking inside. I am pretty sure she said something like that in The God of Small Things. 

And so we taked about the weather. You can talk about the weather in Srinagar for ever. So did we. Then we talked about other random stuff, before falling quiet again. The silence made flitting appearences throughout the meeting. There and gone, in a moment. 

But it would soon turn all pallid. He would leave. 

"Pray for me", he said.

Did I believe in the power of prayer, he had asked. 

The stranger before me was an old friend, who rarely met. And even though I loved him, he wouldn't have known. We take things we dont care about for granted. In fact, right then sitting across him I felt as if I had never really met him. May be I never had. May be he was just a name from the long list of people I have come across on the internet who materialized.

So I said, yes, I will pray for you.

We paid for the coffee and left. In different directions. His to leave the place, mine towards the maze of Srinagar lanes to home. 

The air was heavy with the burden I carried. I must add his name to the prayer. But then, my prayers had carried no name. It had been more of a wish, a secretly expressed desire to which God was a witness. And of course, his Prophet (PBUH). And yet, it would have been unfair if I hadn't mentioned him specifically. Donated a whisper in his name too.

What is the price of prayer?

On the day of Jumat-ul-Vidah, a few years ago the Imam was fervently praying after the congregational prayers. There were loud gasps as people broke down, saying Amen. Afterwards they chimed in loudly for a highly effected Kashmiri na'at. Even in the women's section teary eyed women raised their shawls and the hems of veils in prayer. The prayers then too had no names. They were universal for every body. For joy and happiness. For peace and justice. For life.

However, at night I tried to remember the name of the stranger. The little warrior far away from home, fighting his own brand of despair. And wished his freedom. I tied the wish to the wings of prayer for the stranger. That he may find rest from all that was hard on him.

I prayed that someone would do so much for me too.

Monday, 8 September 2014

The City is an Island

This is a hastened up post for I didn’t know what else to do.
The city tonight lies in shambles. It’s as if we hadn’t enough to cry for in the past years. Throughout the past night and much of the day we could only read about other people being caught up by the flood. An uncle was weeping on the phone. His house was flooded completely and like so many others he had moved to the attic, still in fear that the water would rise further. And no one would come for rescue.

At first, we could call each other and know their status. But then the phones stopped working. The networks died. And now we don’t know about each other at all. We are all locked up. The worst part is that family members so many miles away, in foreign countries, cannot know anything about their people back home. Kids away for their parents, worried for them – that sort of crises. The social media of Kashmir was one long SOS call.  

Whole day we heard the story grow in snippets – as the flood took over the city in parts. Like an invading army, entering from all sides. Rajbagh was the first to go. Jawaharnagar followed. Gogji bagh, Abi Guzar, Goni Khan, HS High all gone in a blink. And now Srinagar lies in a maze of submerged bridges among roads lost to the Jehlum. Small islands of housing clusters remain. People have climbed to the roof tops. The Dal Lake was the last to fall, but fell it did. I am sorry to say that.

And dear Lord, now this night is upon is. Its all dark and scary. And people are terrified. God, please stay this night with them. They need You especially tonight. Like every other night.

The helplessness coming from all the news from Kashmir is tangible. But we have braved the curfews and crack downs – when there was nothing to do except watch the sun rise and set. Empty days full of hours upon hours of uncertainty. There was no way to earn bread either. But we sallied forth. With some faith in God, of course. But this time it is a bit different. That was anger, this is desperation.

There is a slight glimmer of hope. Rescue teams are still working to get stranded people out. But the water is rising and falling in patterns hard to understand. Every now and then there is breach in the embankments and another neighbourhood is flooded.

This seems to be rather long night to pass. 

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Best for the Last

"Will you dance with me? was the last thing that had crossed my mind. Or rather, should have been the last thing.

But Srinagar is never in a mood for dance. That summer had been sad and long. Painful for both of us. And love wasn't love anymore. It had morphed into a memory where no one wanted to travel. The rain had disappeared and the Botanical gardens with it. There were no almond blossoms, nothing to separate the season from autumn.

In my mind, he was now staring at the Chinar. The red and brown leaves falling. The boughs a bit bent. Kashmir would soon lose this sheen. The world would turn a pallid grey. He would leave.

Isn't that Kashmir's tragedy? The best is always lost first.

There was a time when all we had wanted to was to look good. But that doesn't last long. Time works wonders with looks and desires. I remember how gently his hair had fallen on his forehead. I remember that he had secretly loved his looks. I remember I had done too. Though, neither of us confessed. And that is the only thing I remember.

And now all I see is this young guy, with a wide-on-the-butt-narrow-on-the-legs pants sashay into the coffee shop, one of the many things that Kashmir now has. Nobody seems to notice him, except me. And me, for a reason the kid knows nothing about. All of a sudden, the autumn in Botanical gardens has paused. The brown leaves are still hanging there, and there is promise yet.

Outside the summer sun is setting. A group of tourists are excitedly admiring a jamawar shawl in a display window. A bus conductor runs after a bus to climb into it. Three girls from college finally notice the boy and dismiss him immediately. The crest of his carefully puffed hair falls. I laugh out and check myself immediately.

He stares out of the window. I follow his gaze but there is nothing in the clouds today. His faraway looks melts the autumn away from Botanical Gardens. From the gazebo it is still in Spring.

In my memory the question hangs unasked,"will you dance with me?"

The Samovar Tweet-story

Friday, 25 July 2014

It Makes Perfect Sense

I greatly admire people who can properly word their prayers. People who beseech God with proper words of prayers asking Him not just forgiveness but for other material and immaterial things as well.

In the grand mosque located where the mohalla ends, the Imam who used to be was very good with words. I think most imams in Kashmir are. They have a set of items which they all ask in congregational prayers. Forgiveness. Honour. Livelihood. Health. Cure. Suitors. Children. There are prayers for Kashmir, especially in times of turmoil and curfew. There are prayers for Palestine and Muslims around the world. The imam would close his eyes and sit partially facing the gathering as he repeated the same prayer everyday.

It made perfect sense. These things are universal. Everybody could do with living a healthy life with honour and dignity.

Then there is a little pause as the people in the congregation consider a small prayer, just for themselves. But some prayers are not easy to speak out. On nights like the last, Shab Qadr, one feels especially tongue tied of what to ask God for. Is there a picking order? How does one vent out the contradictions and conflict of the heart?

Or we dont. For God already knows. He knows the hope of the heart and its answer. We only need to say Amen. An Amen content in the knowledge that God knows and understands our condition, and that we have no gift for words. He, being the Provider and the Pathmaker, shall make a way for the unsaid prayer to reach Him.

Image Credit: Sajad Rafeeq

Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Inside of a Cup

Precisely at the moment I lost it, it became precious. Like lost lyrics to the songs which you remembered by heart once.

There was no bread to be had, no czochwour and no company. Srinagar was a cool breezy house where afternoon echoed in through open doors. Empty. There was some nun chai, I was sure. But I didn't know how to make it. It was something that was already at home, waiting to be heated and had.

I let the nun chai brew. A bit hesitatingly, not sure if this is the right way. Something so famously complicated couldn't have such a simple beginning. Or could it? The dried crisp leaves danced in the boiling water. It needs to be boiled, for hours and hours, of that I was sure. In the old days, when electricity was really poor in Srinagar and the voltages fluctuated wildly, nun chai was prepared in a thick bottomed vessel, four hours together on a electric heater. That changed with times. When families used to be large and people had too much time and, often too many servants, the samavars were heated in the morning and would brew the nun chai perfectly for hours before serving. Of course, the pot bellied copper samavars are the most authentic way to have nun chai.

But not today. Not for me. The tea lacked colour. And even though the aroma was the same nostalgic fragrance which at once reminded me of my mother's blue winter shawl the colour was absent. I was missing the soda, phol, sodium bicarbonate. The magic ingredient which draws out all the flavour and colour from the tea leaves. Of course, it does that slowly too. The tea bubbled a little as the powder dissolved into it and then died. The electric induction cooker did its usual hum and the tea went back to boiling just as it was.Nun chai draws from the slow humdrum life of Kashmir, taking patience and labour to get the work done. Though, in case of nun chai as I found out, there isn't much work involved at all.

Fifteen minutes.

"Friends" was playing on the television and that was perhaps why I lost track of time. And perhaps because I was keeping myself company, I also noticed how throughout the seasons of Friends it is Monica with her giving nature who binds the friends together. How her fridge was always stocked up for friends to arrive at all hours and feel at home.

Half and hour, may be. I had lost count.

The afternoon dropped temperatures. Srinagar was now a million miles away. It was a memory written on the tea stains on the inside of a cup. It was the pleasant aroma of the inside of my mother's shawl on an autumn afternoon.

Friday, 30 May 2014

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XXVII

There was a fire on the hills.

The stranger had appeared again amidst us. No one noticed the stranger, as people never do. He was waiting at the bus stand in a queue of people. It was hot, the heat drawing out like a centipede on his neck where perspiration trickled. He looked straight ahead. Behind him somebody was laughing wildly into a phone, with such abandon as if there was nothing wrong with the world. His world may be, how would the stranger know?

The bus stand was slowly filling  up. People came and went. Not a single familiar face. The stranger was glad for such things at times. It was an odd relationship with the city: there were no expectations, no pretences and so few disappointments. Both of them hated each other with the same intensity.

Tonight there is nobody. Just the stranger and a few waiters waiting for him to go away. The food is tasteless, like always. And the stranger is starving.

Up in the mountains, there is a fire. The ovens are burning bright and there is a feast laid out for no body in particular. The stranger is aware of it. Acutely, as he reminds his starving mind. He finishes his food, puts down his fork, pays cash to the waiter waiting with the bill and leaves.

The mountains are a pretty place to be in. The stranger considers his mind and the edges he has been drawn to. A draft brings the smoke of the fire to him. They must be burning roses up there. It smells pleasant, singed roses, their colour bleeding into fuel and their fragrance wafting in the fumes. Do they do that? To make the valleys fragrant. There are no breezes here, its all smoke and unpleasant.

The next bus is ten minutes delayed. The man on the phone is still talking.

Quietly he boards the bus and leaves. The city wails behind him. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

"Shall we?"

had no idea what lovers in Kashmir did in winters, when it snowed and everything was cold and wet and hard. Till Spring came and moods turned. This year the storm died somewhere in the mod of April. It is becoming an annual thing now. Winds. Rain in March. The tulips being washed away. The Botanical Gardens must be a sad place, despite the rains and lovers.  But the rains will stop, punctually before the almonds bloom. Like always. It’s a relief Nature grants, the last one before summers.

I mean just look at it! Winters – of jackets, a couple of sweaters, gloves and red noses. Of walking on wet leaves. The smoke from street hawkers’ stalls. Cold and cough. And frozen pipes.

Love is a pointless emotion. I am so convinced of it at this point that in my memory of that spring all the blossoms of Badamvaer have been blown away. He had told me so, many times. But that was too many months ago. Years, even. It was spring and we were young and bored with Kashmir’s normal monotony. 

But that was 2008 and it was all about to change.

It lasted exactly a season. The next season we spent in curfew.

I turn to his memory of looking out of the gazebo in Botanical Gardens. In my mind he is always staring at the almond blossoms. Always smiling. The fading sunlight glinting off his eyes. He is  not interested in me. Not more than I am interested in the blossoms. Suddenly I laugh. This foolishness – of having found a person and imagining falling in love. Its all movie stuff. Until its real and then it doesn’t happen in Botanical Gardens, of that also I am sure.

I turn to his memory and ask, “Will you dance with me?”

.... to be continued....

Friday, 16 May 2014

Homage to Faiz - Agha Shahid Ali

“You are welcome to make your
adaptations of my poems.”
You wrote this from Beirut, two years before
the Sabra-Shatila massacres. That
city’s refugee-air was open, torn
by jets and the voices of reporters. As
always you were witness to “rains of stones,”
though you were away from Pakistan, from
the laws of home which said that the hands of
thieves would be surgically amputated.
But the subcontinent always spoke to
you: in Ghalib’s Urdu, and sometimes through
the old masters who sang of twilight but
didn’t live, like Ghalib, to see the wind
rip the collars of the dawn: the summer
of 1857, the trees of
Delhi became scaffolds: 30,000
men were hanged. Wherever you were, Faiz, that
language spoke to you; and when you heard it,
you were alone—in Tunis, Beirut,
London, or Moscow. Those poets’ laments
concealed, as yours revealed, the sorrows of
a broken time. You knew Ghalib was right:
blood musn’t merely follow routine, musn’t
just flow as the veins’ uninterrupted
river. Sometimes it must flood the eyes,
surprise them by being clear as water.
I didn’t listen when my father
recited your poems to us by
heart. What could it mean to a boy
that you had redefined the cruel
beloved, that figure who already
was Friend, Woman, God? In your hands
she was Revolution. You gave
her silver hands, her lips were red.
Impoverished lovers waited all
night every night, but she
remained only a glimpse behind
light. When I learned of her I was
no longer a boy, and Urdu
a silhouette traced by
the voices of singers, by
Begum Akhtar who wove your couplets
into ragas: both language and music
were sharpened. I listened:
and you became, like memory,
necessary. Dast-e-Saba,
I said to myself. And quietly
the wind opened its palms: I read
there of the night: the secrets
of lovers, the secrets of prisons.
When you permitted my hands to turn to
stone, as must happen to a translator’s
hands, I thought of you writing Zindan-Nama
on prison-walls, on cigarette-packages,
on torn envelopes. Your lines were measured
so carefully to become in our veins
the blood of prisoners. In the free verse
of another language I imprisoned
each line—but I touched my own exile.
This hush, while your ghazals lay in my palms,
was accurate, as is this hush which falls
at news of your death over Pakistan
and India and over all of us no
longer there to whom you spoke in Urdu.
Twenty days before your death you finally
wrote, this time from Lahore, that after the sack
of Beirut you had no address. . .I
had gone from poem to poem, and found
you once terribly alone, speaking
to yourself: “Bolt your doors, Sad heart! Put out
the candles, break all cups of wine. No one,
now no one will ever return.” But you
still waited, Faiz, for that God, that Woman,
that Friend, that Revolution, to come at
last. And because you waited, I
listen as you pass with some song,

A memory of musk, the rebel face of hope. 

- Agha Shahid Ali

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Spring, Open

Winter is many nights gone in Kashmir and it seems to be the perfect time to lament about Harissa. After all, that is one of the two good things the winters bring. The other being snow.
Like folklore, no one is quite sure how the harissa tradition began. These days not many people bother about this and other questions Kashmir throws up. There are all sorts of stories conjured up about it, involving kings, paupers, Persians, soldiers, Mongolians and horse meat. But the same story tellers use this set of characters to trace the origins of waz-wan as well. So, one can’t be very sure. Story tellers often are people with sense of history gone for a very adventurous walk.
Harissa is a meat preparation and in Kashmir made exclusively with mutton. It is a slow cooked dished, cooked overnight in a large earthen vessel during winters and served in the early morning at breakfast. The meat is boiled in a variety of spices and combined with some starchy rice-water and oil, all the while cooking on a moderated heat and stirring slowly. The prolonged heat and constant stirring turns the meat into a stringy paste which is harissa essentially. The process can be replicated at home but only with an adequate quantity of boneless meat.
The traditional shops where it is served across the city have a uniform look. They are small, low establishments which, all things considered, look straight out of a Dickens novel. They are drab and damp like old kitchens and usually feature an old man surrounded by hungry boys. The walls are heavy with moisture and a dozen bags. And to complete the scene a dozen more young men – unshaven in their morning rawness – hang around the shop idly peeping through the glass windows.
The bakeries were already abuzz by the time the harissa shops started, which was soon after the Fajr prayers. Just when the sun has fully appeared on the horizon. Men were returning from the mosques, mumbling prayers under their breath. Somebody was fidgeting with the switchboard in the mosque. The microphone gave a sudden shriek and died away. A few women were out to buy bread. The streets were quiet save the chatter of a few students returning from one tuition en-route to another. They held their jackets tight and their books close. The early morning lives were just about to start. The half-insane cowherd who sang ballads to his cows and asked passersby for cigarettes. The milkman who only delivered pure milk in Ramazan.  Stray dogs, cold and tired in the morning returned to garbage heaps. The army men marched back to their barracks after the night’s patrol. The rest of Srinagar slept.
This was early winter so snow was still some months away. Its absence lent a grey hue to dawns and everything appeared equal parts hopeful and gloomy. The harissa walla’s was a small establishment in a dilapidated building just across the Red Cross road in Srinagar. A few men had gathered selling vegetables from hand carts on the nearly empty street.
Dickens worked inside the shop. A heavy curtain marked the entrance to a spacious and crowded room. The walls were greasy with perspiration. The shop owner sat on the elevated platform where he, assisted by a few younger men, doled out bowl-fuls of harissa to the men who had gathered there. There were no women present.
That early in the morning people like to keep it simple – so you simply enter the shop and say “Salam” after which you tell the owner the quantity of harissa you’d like to have. Many arrive with tiffin boxes and casseroles to carry the harissa home. Others are served in the shop, on one of the six long benches. A pile of plates lay on one side of the shop owner. He gave the harissa vat a stirring, the plate a mop, and with a “Bismillah” dipped his bowl in the vat to bring it out full and brimming. On a stove near the wall he kept a skillet full of oil. Hot oil is poured over the harissa – so hot that it carries a flame and gives a dramatic, magician-like blaze when poured on the plate. A small kebab adjusted somewhere on the plate along with a little methi-maaz (originally a wazwan dish, and served with the harissa only as an extra accompaniment) and the plate is ready to be served.

The wall opposite to me carried a frame on which the 30 parts of the Holy Quran was written in a minute font. A few more pictures hung on the walls, gone blue with age, doing nothing to improve the mood of the place. A man came forward with my plate of harissa. He was wearing a shirt and two faded cardigans of which he had pulled the sleeves around his elbows. He wore baggy trousers and I imagined that he must have taken off his pheran to work in the joint and must have started at about seven in the morning.
The fresh girdah which is served with the harissa is tandoor baked. A soft and moist ball of dough is flattened forcefully with the palm and grooves made with fingers. This is then gently slapped against the wall of a tandoor. The girdah is a staple with harissa. Nothing else goes as well.
The usual clamour of the shops dims away from the ears. The soft fresh aroma of the bread and the wafting fragrance of the harissa is all that captures the senses. The feast is served on a small decrepit plate with a floral trimming. Mid way I pause, realising that I am doing it wrong. Season’s first harissa is to be eaten slowly, ceremoniously – not gulped down desperately. The people next to me were doing it wrong too. Talking way too much. Not noting the taste. How it melts in the mouth. How it warms the soul. And how, after you are through with one plate you ask for another without contemplation. There is just so much of metaphysics in a plate of pounded meat.
The first harissa of the season was just had. People were still streaming into the shops, closing time was fast approaching. There is no system of billing. The man on the platform and his assistants know who ate how much and charge accordingly. The girdah are complimentary.
Harissa is like an ambassador of the winters. It makes a small appearance in November and by the time we are in the throes of winter it is fully established across the city. That is the time when soon-to-be-in-laws exchange daeghfuls and mid level bureaucrats send equal quantities to impress their higher ups. As it is served throughout the winters and winters only, for this year, harissa has bid good bye till November. Some people take an aversion to the only-winters rule. But I think it adds a sense of mystique and charm to it. a tradition the origins of which are unclear. Harissa is a recipe left over from some forgotten pages of an ancient travelogue. But April is too late in the season to be talking about it anyhow. Spring is upon us and the government has opened the Tulip Garden for public just to make sure that spring is officially here. Elsewhere people may have to wait for the seasons to turn. But in Kashmir, we let the tulips officiate spring.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Vote for Non Sense

Its polls season, y’all people! And Kashmiris are dying already.

In Srinagar, it began with the arrest of people.

Elections in Kashmir are like a mole on a fair face. Depending on where you look at it from it may appear as a wart or a beauty spot. But not both at the same time. Also like a mole they serve hardly any purpose. Except creating havoc, like the death of a polling officer who in his non-election life was an ordinary government employee and in his election life became a target for some loonies.

The government is cautious fielding only “dynamic candidates” in the fray and arresting people as a side business. After seeing low turnover in Anantnag and Shopian it decided that keeping people behind bars may be an effective way of driving them to the polling stations. Which is acceptable in Kashmir, because its not like we bother ourselves with things like human rights, which is Latin for “that thing people on the internet speak about”. Newspapers have reported that over 500 people were arrested because elections were to be conducted. The government has called them “stone pelters and trouble mongers” and the proof against them was that they had been arrested in the previous raid as well. So, it makes a plausible official note that the police is only acting as per prevailing practice. Sometimes, however, the police do come up with crucial photographic evidence too. That is when you see a police officer holding with his right hand a tiny fellow at the end of his paunch and a photograph of the said tiny fellow hurling a stone in his left hand. You can see the police man smiling at the genius of having proved left hand side is equal to right hand side.

The polls also came to Kashmir, like interlocutors did a few years ago, amid restrictions and curfews. 30th as expected was a holiday. The security throughout the city had been beefed up, because if there is one thing that will entice the people of Kashmir to come out of homes and vote it will be paramilitary troopers.

In the run up to the polls the usual campaigns had been extraordinarily dull, mainly because Farooq sahib had a sore throat. There was some news of a certain politician letting it go with some hip “Bhand paether” but who counts that as entertainment any more? And who votes for that? The elections have been a singularly tough time for Indian political parties. A minister who is otherwise famous for his middle finger and insider knowledge (like knowing that some other politicians have ten wives) had to rough up a youth. The young man was criminally involved in waving some documents at a rally. Foolish, what use could papers have been at a rally? Could he not just have left them at home? I say, he was asking for it! This not being a “sadak-bijli-pani” election (read, State Legislative elections) the local politicians had no statements, a.k.a. promises, to make. These elections are a bigger game of bigger and badder things. So Mufti Syeed  decided to go straight for the jackpot and declared that he will solve the Kashmir issue. However, we learnt from Geelani Sahib that Mufti Syeed had claimed that earlier too but if given 40 seats, which sounds like a rundown  DD Kashir adaptation of Around the World in 80 Days. Anything works in Kashmir; it’s not like anyone listens or cares.

By evening when some people had voted, some hadn’t, and some protested the day through, one young man was killed. Because the paramilitary had had nothing to do the whole day it would have been a shame to let a day of boycott and sporadic protests to pass without at least one death. Something to show in the name of security! Like homework not done. In the curfew that followed on May 1, the forces did nothing much during the day, and just as the protesters dispersed in evening they emerged like a gang embarrassed school bullies who had lost a match and went berserk on the pitch. Breaking window panes and car wind-shields. Because if there is any way to pacify a mob it is by breaking the windows of their homes.

Nothing good is expected from these elections. Not at least by this writer. Not tonight. And last I checked pessimism isn’t sedition. 

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Thank God For Little Pleasures XXVI

The journey may be alright but the heart drives one home. 

Heard of the traveller who lost his heart on the way? He lost it to the path. So he was never home. Like a moth attracted only to the farthest candle, he never stopped fluttering. 

Never resting. 

Monday, 31 March 2014

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XXV

There is nothing that nun-chai cannot accomplish.

Yesterday, when Francesca Recchia, Marryam Reshii and I decided to form the #NunChaiFanClub, the Koshur tweeples opened up their hearts to nunchai and buttered girdahs. The readers may know Francesca Recchia and Marryam Reshii from this previous post.

We have the whole conversation storified on the the Samavar blog. Please take some time to read it.

A few random snippets follow:

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Youth Makes One Worry

Narcissus are abloom in Kashmir officiating the Spring. They have a short lived season, small white and yellow flowers who die in their youth. Just like Narcissus, the ancient Greek hunter who fell in love with his own reflection. The Greek mythology, full of fascinating gods, narrates his story. Too handsome to not give rise to a legend, Narcissus has inspired multiple stories of how he came to be around the lake and gazing into it fell in love with himself. In some versions he was cursed, in others he was just young.
Read about Narcissus here.

The title of the post itself is a tweet by a friend on Twitter

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Delirious Lover

The bus stand was crowded when I reached there. I paused, with the sudden realisation that it had already begun like a cliché. Terrible, terrible thing. Bus stands are supposed to be crowded. That's why they build them.

Any how I buy a ticket and get in. The passenger sitting next to me is not a Kashmiri. 

I am not supposed to be telling stories, why is it going like one?

I didn't begin a conversation with him. On this bus, on which I have made a hundred trips, I have never actually spoken to a stranger. Its the most natural thing. I have fallen asleep and dreamt of being lost, but never actually spoken to a stranger. And, then putting it all aside, I opened a book to read. But the book was a distraction. The person next to me look sideways at the book I was reading and looked away . 

("Snob", I heard his thoughts go. "Who reads Orhan Pamuk in a bus?")

He called his wife to tell that he would call again when he reached.  

I put the book back in my bag. It was hard to follow things in Turkey when Kashmir was what was written all over. Somebody had died in Kashmir. How can you see an old death in a new light? Awful things were happening. Turkey was still far away. It could wait. 

Snow, the usual beloved, had broken its truce. This March it appeared like a guest we were not expecting at all. Pleasantly surprised to welcome the visitor, we put our Spring on the side. But Snow was not pleased. It was, may I say like some storytellers do, a little angry at us. It came down in clumps and not very kindly. It broke a wall, a roof and a tree's tall reach. But we still loved the guest. A force of habit, we are Kashmiris. we must love you, to let you in our house. Those who enter by force are not loved. But, Snow scorned at us and caused much pain. Like a beloved. We could only smile and carry on. Like delirious lovers. 

Back on the bus, the sunlight had just started to stream in through the clouds. It made visible patterns as it struck the window panes and hit my face. It was the only good thing at the moment. But it was brief.  The bus rolled on with a sudden jerk and we left sunshine far behind.

In the cover of this snow, the winter seeks a quiet extension. It has stretched its withered hand as if to say, "hold me while I am still here." The snow, a bit shy in March, shines from the trees in the stolen sunlight of a dim afternoon. On the bus, many miles away, it whispers in my ear, "If I die tonight, will you have spring in the morning?".

Monday, 3 March 2014

We Need New Words

One is satisfied that the things are very normal in the Valley. All hail the good old Normalcy. Like a beloved aunt, she has come visiting, this time soon after a curfew and a strike. She has arrived, unpacked her bags and is now looking for things to do.

The first thing Normalcy did was declare that the seven people killed a week ago in Lolab were militants. That is the norm. The government, army, and sundry pro-India people are in generally satisfied that they are, oops... were militants and hence their deaths were very much warranted. And, as such there is no reason to make news. It’s all in a day’s job. Militants. Bang! Over.

The second normal act was “observing a shutdown” in Kupwara. Observing shutdowns is like the political version of fasting. Srinagar generally falls in line. One day when it is all cold and calm, the photo journalists come out to click pictures of shops with their shutters down, stray dogs lazing round, Indian army men standing over them, and we know that a shutdown is being observed. The rare car that passes by speeds quickly, so as not to disturb the aura of the shut down that is being observed. Sometimes though, a paradox occurs. Authorities, curfew the shutdown. This scares Normalcy. She writes long and angry letters to no one in particular about such occurrences. The paradox is worsened further by imposing restrictions. “Restrictions” per se, Normalcy is okay with. She lets them pass.  But a restriction during a curfew in a shutdown is not in her rule book. This makes her uneasy, harassed and vexed. Not that she can do much about it.

As a sure sign of everything being normal, people were found protesting. Protests, one suspects, relieve the government. If people don’t protest in Kashmir, the government is confounded and starts taking undue credit. So this time people protested. The army which was already out there threw tear gas canisters and sundry items which could be easily thrown about, while baton charging the stone-pelters. All in a day’s work!

“Normalcy limps back into Kupwara”, said a newspaper. As if she had gone on a shopping spree and injured herself. Normalcy may mean different things to different people. When tourists come and see Srinagar, they find it abnormal. According to them having a military person with an automatic weapon standing after every few yards is not normal. For the people of Kashmir that is pretty much normal. What is not normal however, is what the armymen do (are allowed to do and get off) with the weapons. For others, that is pretty much normal because, logic would say, when a man has a gun he may as well be allowed to use it.

The newspaper report goes on to say that “normal life was suspended...after authorities imposed restrictions...” This again brings us to the question what is normal and what is isn’t. Kashmir functions on a different sort of a normal. The usual definitions of normalcy don’t apply. in ordinary places normalcy doesn’t come and go. She stays there like a permanent resident in her own house, with her own address. But in Kashmir, normalcy is a visitor, much like a tourist. She sometimes comes to the valley in the tardy Volvo buses and stays as long as the tourists stay. After that she is gone again, giving people from the plains beyond the Pir Panjal strange ideas about things being normal in Kashmir and abnormal with Kashmiri people. Clearly, this ‘normal’ is their normal, which is different from the Kashmiri ‘normal’.

Normal is something that is typical or expected. Usual, one may add. The killing of people in a conflict zone is no news. Not unusual. People, local or not. The dead don’t dispute. So they may be brandished as anything – terrorists, militants, Pakistanis, Azad-Kashmiris, locals, Indians, Afghanis. Anything. In Kashmir, the routines are more or less set. Since 2010, the killings-protests-strikes-killings cycles have set in a pattern. There is a killing first. Then there are protests over that. A few of the protestors are then killed, and a strike is announced. A curfew follows, declared beforehand or otherwise. Then, if there are no more killings to be protested, Normalcy appears again. Limping, walking with crutches, nursing bruised limbs. But back again.

Any year (like 2011 and 2012) where the number of people killed is less compared to the last is ‘normal’.  Relatively peaceful, some cautious commentators say. They don’t say 2013 was normal, may be because the Valley was under curfew the whole of February and part of March after Afzal Guru was hanged. But in 2013, curfew was imposed and re-imposed again in Bandipore sometime in July, then in Ramban in Ramazan, in Shopian in September, in Palhalan in October, in Srinagar during Moharram in November. Those who have lived through curfews as extensive as Kashmir’s will say there is hardly anything peaceful about a curfew. It is an infuriating calm. A ghoulish silence which is calculated to be tolerable enough and yet corrosive enough to be violent. 

‘Normal life was suspended’, the papers read. And suspended yet again. And some more, till it decided to remain suspended for ever. But for Kashmir, this is normal. People wake each morning to wonder if there is ‘normal life’ waiting for them today – a life where they can go to work, come back and be content, like other people having normal lives throughout the world. Instead, every second day, there is an awe inspiring, agonising incident. A man killed here. A youth dead there. The newspaper is folded back and normal life suspended again.

Then there is the question of Memory. Memory is a vile and disputed business. For the past twenty years or so, those who have been brought up in Kashmir have known a normal which their own parents dispute. The parents and older acquaintances still harbour images from a Shammi Kapoor era Kashmir which looked peaceful enough on screen. Normal, minus the dancing. But few decades later that normal was lost and a new normal emerged - one that was dismissed as soon as it was noticed. This may be debatable but cannot be discarded as 'abnormal'. in totality. The new normal may have its challenges but for people who have never seen a life outside militancy this is normal. A life full of curfews and armymen. Strikes. Other people's tragedies. Daily news reports of violence and deaths. Unexplained arrests. All this comes as a bundle of growing up in place in turmoil. These are initial ideas which appear conflicting only when compared to other people's normal. The normal of people who are not introduced to places like Kashmir.

Life in Kashmir takes into account all of this and more. There are stop-gap days when people actually come out to try making a living. Where the bazaar opens and traffic jams. Schools open and hurry to finish the syllabi. When students go to universities and worry about careers, which somehow must have something to do with the life in between curfews. All hope is not abandoned. Its a balancing act.

That is when the government comes out and announces the arrival of Normalcy back in town. In a most brazen way, it may even pat its own back, almost blind to the irony that the normal of Kashmir has shifted further. With each repeated cycle, the pattern becomes affixed. Normalcy’s bruises become her character. For Kashmir, this battered broken Normalcy becomes the normal. In this there are no elements of felicitation. Its like a zoo animals driven out of cages for show during the day and driven back inside for the night. With no charge of their own lives. With no words in the lexicon to describe the 'normal' they suffer from. 

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Hans Christian Ostro

             Even today there are no trains
             into the Vale of Kashmir.

And those defunct trains – Kashmir Mail,
Srinagar Express – took
pilgrims only till the last of plains.
There, in blue-struck buses, they forsook
the monsoon. What iron could be forged to rail
like faith through mountains

star-sapphired, by dawn amethyst?
It’s not a happy sound...
There is such pathos in the cry of trains:
Words breathed aloud but inward-bound.
Bruised by trust      O Heart bare amidst
fire          arms turquoise with veins

from love’s smoke-mines            blessed infidel
who wants your surrender?
I cannot protect you: these are my hands.
I’ll wait by the deep jade river;
you’ll emerge from the mist of Jewel Tunnel:
O the peaks one commands –

A miracle! – from there ... Will morning
suffice to dazzle blind
beggars to sight? Whoso gives life to a soul
shall be as if he had to all of mankind
given life. Or will your veins’ hurt lightning –
the day streaked with charcoal –
betray you, beautiful stranger
sent to a lovelorn people
longing of God? Their river torn apart,
they’ve tied waves around their ankles,
mourning the train that save its passenger
will at night depart

for drowning towns. And draped in rain
of the last monsoon-storm,
a beggar, ears pressed to that metal cry,
will keep waiting on a ghost-platform,
holding back his tears, waving every train
Good-bye and Good-bye.

- Agha Shahid Ali
From "The Country Without a Post office"

From Left to Right: Hans Christian Ostro, Dirk Hasert, Paul Welles, Keith Mangan and Don Hutchings

PS: In July 1995, Al-Faran kidnapped 4 Western trekkers from Pahalgam. They demanded that in return of the hostages, 21 of their jailed comrades be released by India. Four days later one hostage escaped. But on that very day, 2 more trekkers were abducted. Hans Christian Ostro from Norway was one of the two. The other was Dirk Hasert from Germany.

Hans Christian Ostro was beheaded and his body found in the upper reaches of Pahalgam on 13 August. He was 27. What became of the other hostages is not known with certainty. 

Monday, 24 February 2014

Thank God for Little Pleasure XXIV

To stay the homesick, homesick feet
Upon a foreign shore,
Haunted by native lands, the while,
And blue, beloved air -

Emily Dickinson

Thursday, 13 February 2014

A Curfew in Peace

9th February.

 Last year Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi on this day.  Early in the morning curfew was imposed, the news channels blocked and internet services cut down by the government to save people from the terrible onslaught of the news. Still, the government despite its good intentions and good humour could not save the people from hearing the news. People heard and, much to the agony of the government, reacted by getting angry and throwing stones. The defenceless security forces finding no other option to save the integrity of the curfew which they had imposed with so much devotion murdered a handful of people in protests and arrested a handful more.

After a few days of turbulence, just as the government had planned, peace returned to the Valley and slowly the curfew was withdrawn, the arrested people forgotten and the dead, well, were found to be really dead. They were put in a long list of martyrs, nameless for the most part, where they join others from 2010 and sundry massacres.

This year, on the anniversary of the hanging, the government displaying an unusual foresight blocked the internet and clamped curfew, thereby saving the last remaining of human race in Kashmir. The internet was ostensibly down for three days and curfew was having a little snow party. Even though not much snow is left. With Maqbool Bhat’s annual strike just round the corner on 11th of February, these two hangings could very well become Kashmir’s official (or unofficial) way to welcome spring. A sort of Koshur spring festival, only more grotesque and one utterly lacking in festivities.

Internet is usually the first casualty of anything that happens in Kashmir. Being one of the two things totally under the control of government (the other being curfew) it is frequently blocked or scrutinized or both simultaneously. The government looks out for events, or creates an event, and then extends a neck out of a little window and yells, “Stop the internet. Just do it!”
They hanged Afzal Guru. Block the internet.
It’s 15th August. Block the internet.
A mufti issued a fatwa against a local all girls band. Block the internet.
The minister has taken a blue pill. Block the internet.
(Okay, I made the last one up, but one can’t be sure enough – of blue pills and internet blockades).

When this government came to power, one of the first things it did was to ban the local news channels. Those days, it used to be fashionable to throw around words like “law and order”, “security’ and hence establish that the new government is not only bringing new censorships but also comes with a better vocabulary. Then the SMS were banned in 2008, but were started again a few months later. For two more years petty crimes and little “wars against the state” were waged through SMS and, finally, in 2010 the government rid the people of their menace. Since so many people were dying that year, it was no longer considered adequate or sensible to question the ban. People just accepted it and made do. The old tricks of changing “Service Centre” numbers that used to work in 2008 for sending texts during the ban no longer worked in 2010 and haven’t worked since then.

And now, we have the unique situation, where the government has blocked the internet, thus leaving people without Twitter – to which they were paying as much attention to know the reason for blockade as to Pakistan’s Ruiyat-e-Hilal Commitee for moon sighting on Eid. However, the justifications didn’t come. The internet being banned and all. Like all true democracies internet was blocked for three days only after a public announcement giving local media a chance to inform the people. And in a wonderful display of timing, it was snapped five minutes before the clock struck midnight just as ordered.

Despite all these measures, the people still complained. Some patients who had been let off were forced to spend another night in the hospital as if they were sick and the doctors complained of being treated like civilians when they were asked to show their identity cards repeatedly on the roads. In these perilous times, one cannot even have a curfew in peace without someone complaining to not being able to buy medicine or not being able to shift patients from one hospital to another or the University postponing its exams.

But one can’t get too feisty about a day of restrictions. It is, after all, a regular thing. The government opposing factions had given a call for strike. A mark of protest and anguish. The undeclared curfew changed it to a mark of oppression and police control. The protest it still remained, even under the iron gauntlet. 

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Eid Milad -un- Nabi Mubarak

12th Rabbi-ul-Awwal.

The day of birth of Prophet Muhammad (Sallalahu alihi wassalam)

The days leading upto the auspicious occasion are busy in Srinagar. The Dargah is jam packed from morning to evening. There are special buses from Lal Chowk to Dargah just to ferry people. The devotees throng the mosque.

Twice a day the head priest will extend his arm out of the high balconies and show, in a glass bottle, the hair strand of the Beloved Prophet (peace be upon him). The crowds below have been waiting for this. A thousand arms stretch skywards and a million prayers are uttered. A million blessings on the owner of this strand. A thousand prayers for the man who possessed it once. From those who had been waiting for it. From those who had pined silently for someone to listen. From those who hope that their prayers will be answered. From those who never tire of their hopes. Teary eyed, burqa clad women, teary eyed pheran clad men.

Quiet lost souls. Faraway wayfarers.

Late in the evening when the seven o'clock local news shows the scenes from Hazratbal, people would again crowd near the televisions to see it. As the camera panned to the priests hand, even though barely visible, durood and salaams would be recited and silent prayers will be whispered.

To those who made it to Hazratbal in this chill and frost, may Allah increase your faith.

(With hopes that people who read this may remember the writer of these cheesy posts in their prayers)

Thank God For Little Pleasures - XXIII