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. 

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