Thursday, 22 September 2016

The First Day of Autumn

This is the first day of autumn. The autumnal equinox occurs today.

I have too many questions on my mind. This is one of them. When do we write off a city?

When the floods came in 2014, there was a certain amount of despair in Srinagar. A certain amount of gloominess that comes only from watching ruins. Large parts of the city were deserted. People used to sit outside ruined homes, trying to salvage whatever little could be saved. Mostly Srinagar stared blankly into the void and the void stared back at the city.

Autumn brings in the chaos in our lives. This is nature’s Instagram account where everything is sepia toned and shaded. It is not very cold yet, but we are heading towards that.

Autumn may also bring in war in Kashmir, at least, if you believe a lot of Indian news channels. The naiveté surprises me, thought the rhetoric doesn’t. For many of the war mongers, it will be an excursion – listening to tales of bravado which they can pass on to generations and brag about for years. As much of things to do with Kashmir, it will not effect them. It will not be fought on their streets, among their people.

Before we realize time the chinars will be covered in red and gold leaves. I am waiting for that. In the barren city of Srinagar, it will be quite a show. I doubt if the people have given up yet.  It will be dishonest to say that this year has been just difficult, it has been devastating. There has been a war, and all humanity murdered. I just completed Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”. For Hemingway, war is an occupation where humanity survives only on the hope of its end. And this is emblematic of Kashmir today – we are hoping for one war to end before they wage another. I doubt the soldiers on either side want to fight a war, but it will be imposed on them just like on us, if the powers that be decide so.

There has been a complete shutdown for almost three months now. Almost all of it under curfew imposed by the government. The government is on the other side of the fence; they are not from among us and I have no good words to say about it. I, like everyone on this side of the fence, want people to not be arbitrarily killed. 86 people have died in this summer. The whole city is a war front which the media does not see and show. People, locked up in their homes, have given up work, money and opportunity to survive this war and see the end of the conflict. Enough, I hear my sighs whisper. Enough of the summers of bloodshed.

When the floods subsided, and the city rose from the ruins like a person lost in the sudden brightness of the day, there was much loss to wail over. On a bright day of that autumn two years ago, I walked to Amira Kadal Bridge. It was few days to Eid that year, and the city was, much like this year, barren. Piles of mud were being thrown out of shops, all stocks had turned to mush in the flood waters and the floors of many shops had cracked. The shopkeepers looked around with hollow eyed desperation. On the bridge, there was a small mob of people gathered around a hand cart. I wondered what the hawker was selling. A man held out a watch, a simple dial with a plastic strap. Its face slightly dirtied by flood, but ticking. The times were still changing, as they always do.

I, like everyone else, don’t know what will happen next – and I will not speculate about the future. Will we be caught in a senseless war between India and Pakistan on our territory? Or will be be occupied by autumn’s revelry? We have had enough of both India and Pakistan in our homes. I wish the unwelcome guests go back and cease the war among us. There is no dignified argument for war, but there is every possibility in this autumn – war or otherwise.

This time, more than ever, I am waiting for the chinars to change hues. For the clocks to tick a little bit more.

Lets not write off Srinagar just yet. Not yet.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Another Postcard from Srinagar

Yesterday, I went to the shrine of Ghousul Azam Dastgeer at Khanyar.

Khanyar looks like a ghost town. The roads were completely deserted as if the residents had fled somewhere else.

A few boys sat on the footpaths, talking among themselves. A policeman was eating an apple from a cart. I was scared someone will throw a stone at me, no one did. I was scared someone may shoot a bullet or pellets, no one did that either.

At Khayam I saw a few cars and bikes pass by. Then as you go down the Nowpora bridge, there are only Indian armymen and a few stray dogs around the dustbins and nothing much else. The CRPF men looked bored carrying bamboo frames and glass shields. I always wonder what they talk about among themselves - about the people they have left back at home, or the ones they shoot to kill, or the people left behind by the ones the kill. A CRPF man shuffled his feet, another adjusted his paunch on the shield. A man sitting outside his house selling petrol in a Fanta bottle looked at me. (Petrol pumps open only at six on some days when the rest of the bazaars open.)

Everyone stared at the cars that passed by, trying to judge why would that person be out at this hour. We are only a short distant away from death.

At Shiraz Chowk, there is a thin razor wire separating this side of the city from that side. There is another razor wire a few meters away before the turn for Nauhatta. A CRPF man was playing with his baton. (If you have never been in the city, this all may sound very confusing. But if you have, you'd know this is at a distance of hardly five minutes on foot). There was only a  small company of CRPF men stationed over there.

A beggar sat behind the archways of the shrine gate and a man on the raised platform outside the shrine.

The door of the shrine was locked and an iron gate pulled across. A hundred threads were knotted to its bars - a hundred wishes yet unanswered.

The man sitting outside told me that that there have been no prayers at the shrine and the adjacent mosque for more than a month. Almost a month an old man sitting there had said that the shrine was closed because the police and CRPF used to enter the shrine chasing the boys.

Its been closed since.

Returning back, I saw an old man riding a cycle with his grandson sitting on the crossbar. He was perhaps out to take the little one for a ride.

Later, on in a different part of the city I saw huge buses moving about with tin sheets tied to the windows. More policemen perhaps. The city is trapped in razor wire coils manned by CRPF and police. Double lane roads have been converted to single lanes for no apparent reason. Traffic policemen are busy, fining bikers for violations (or otherwise, I have no idea).

There are no traffic jams anymore in the city except at six when the markets open. The bazaar opens at six, shortly before the maghrib prayers and close down soon after the prayers. By nine, the city is shut again. They lock everything and take the keys, uncertain what tomorrow may bring. You know, I so want to tell you how the sun shines these days in the afternoon when its bright and warm, and how cool the shadows are, how the leaves rustle as the breeze comes up in the evening - but I know that in times of war the skies are red at night. Later I came to now that some boys had been arrested and many miles away a twenty year old had been killed.

When in 2012 the shrine was burnt people used to come outside its still standing walls and pray. The new structure was almost complete now and redone to resemble the old one from my childhood where I used to visit with my grandmother.

I tried to imagine all the prayers locked up behind the door of the shrine. The weeping and wailing women who used to pray with such resignation. And now me, a lone figure standing outside the doors I had never thought would be turned on me.

But I still prayed because faith transcends closed doors. And because my hope for this city is eternal. Beyond the endless barricades, beyond the garrisons and guns, Srinagar is still a beautiful city and I am still in love with it. One day the doors of the shrine shall finally be opened and we will return to untie the knots from the iron bars. One by one.