Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Elegy for a bridge

It has been 25 years since the massacre on Srinagar’s Gaw Kadal, one of Kashmir’s worst human rights violations

You are an afternoon,
a memory that hangs together, 
a half-eaten pear, a winter, 
a chopped off arm 
and a healthy stray dog chomping off that arm. 
Nobody can eat winter like a pear. 
Nobody can live inside a pear like winter. 
You are a dying voice drowned by a shout “Don’t waste your bullet. I’ve pumped enough rounds into his body. He’ll die on his own”.

Gaw Kadal is a small bridge that leads you to the fashionable Residency Road in the heart of Srinagar. A small strait from Jhelum flows beneath it. Street vendors sell dry fish on the bridge during winters. Shikaras, laden with collards or haak, Kashmir’s staple diet, can be seen anchored below the bridge as people and auto rickshaws scurry past. There used to be an old world feel to Gaw Kadal’s balustrades, trusses and curbs. Although much water has flown between its decrepit pillars, the memories of what happened on this bridge -- this day -- on a cold winter morning, 25 years ago, refuse to go away. Memories, like wood, seldom sink.

Sure quarter of a century is a long time. Democracies are usually good at wearing make up and going about town in the hope that people disremember. It would be a shame if we fail to bear witness to what happened to our neighbours, our friends and those who perished at Gaw Kadal. For the dead and the living, we must bear witness, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, whom the Nobel committee called ‘a messenger to mankind’, once said.

Why did the Indian paramilitary forces kill those innocent people on the small bridge that cold January morning? Fifty people, all civilians, wearing pherans and holding kangris, innocent. Killed at point blank by the CRPF. There could be many answers. The cop version, the CRPF version and the standard government press note (I often wonder the press note guy must keep his heart with devil for safekeeping while he peddles all those lies). The issue with truth, however, is that it shines through all interpretations.

Early that morning people had been anxious about reports of nighttime raids conducted by the CRPF in several areas of Srinagar on the preceding night (January 20, 1990). Close to 300 ordinary people were detained in these operations, most of them innocent. In areas like Chota Bazar, reports came that the paramilitary forces misbehaved with women in some homes. There was a pattern to it. The harassment and intimidation appeared part of a new government policy to break the spirit of Kashmiris.

The newly elected governor of J&K, Jagmohan, a well-known communal character, had recently been dispatched to Srinagar to break the uprising that enjoyed popular support. Soon an atmosphere of fear was introduced, which started with humiliating crackdown operations and ended in a systematic brutalisation of an entire population. Those poor men, who marched to Gaw Kadal that afternoon, protesting against house-to-house searches in Chota Bazar and adjoining areas, had no idea what was to befall them. No efforts were made to stop the march until it reached Gaw Kadal. Once they got to the bridge, bullets swiftly cut them down.

The historian William Dalrymple, who visited Srinagar the next day wrote about the horror thus: “When I got to Srinagar the following day, I went straight to the city hospital. Every bed there was occupied and the overflow lined the corridors. One man, an educated and urbane city engineer named Farooq Ahmed, described how after the firing, the CRPF walked slowly forward across the bridge, finishing off those who were lying wounded on the ground. When the shooting began, Ahmed had fallen flat on his face and managed to escape completely unhurt. “Just as I was about to get up,” he told me, “I saw soldiers coming forward, shooting anyone who was injured. Someone pointed at me and shouted, ‘that man is alive,’ and a soldier began firing at me with a machine gun. I was hit four times in the back and twice in the arms.” Seeing that he was still alive, another soldier raised his gun, but the officer told him not to waste ammunition. “The man said I would anyway die soon.”

The engineer lived to tell the tale. There were several other eyewitnesses to the massacre who recounted the brutality and horror of what happened on the bridge. Through psychological bruises, they spoke of the torment, of having to recall what could have been their end. Suddenly Gaw Kadal stopped being a wooden bridge. In the mental landscape of countless, it transformed into a memorial. It became a totem of the occupation. It began to be identified with everything that India represented in Kashmir.

The incident sent shockwaves across the valley. In the wicked sense of humor that Kashmiris are famous for, Jagmohan quickly became ‘Jage-Khor’ (the baldie), an ugly cartoonish caricature in big, thick glasses, who wanted to punish the entire classroom because a few kids in the back said boo. Of course he couldn’t break the spirit of people, forget about taming it. The resolve may appear weary after all these years but aspirations have been known to outlive cartoons and bridges.

“How many bridges do you have in Srinagar?” a friend asked me in London recently. It used to be the city of several bridges, I replied, while walking with him on the Millennium Bridge that links Bankside with the City of London. There used to be seven or perhaps nine bridges that connected the Srinagar city of our childhood. Unsure of which bridge to cross and which bridge to burn, they marked some with ugly sand bunkers and others with the red of our blood. The Londoner thought I was being philosophical. The truth is that the recent history of our bridges (and rivers) is full of unspeakable crimes.

No one was ever punished for the Gaw Kadal massacre. Twenty-five years on, no one has been charged. No CRPF walla, none of the authorities who issued the orders, not the top cop Allah Baksh (who passed away a few years ago) and of course, not Jagmohan, the venal governor, whiling his time away in comfort, perhaps content at 90 to initiate a policy that sent 15-year olds to graves.

Gaw Kadal stands as a silent testament to the depravation of Kashmir’s brutal oppression.

@Sameer

Thursday, January 08, 2015

How to avenge a cartoon?

You can’t possibly avenge a cartoon. You can’t take vengeance at visual art? That is because no one can physically fight an idea, however ugly, however profane, and however sacrilegious.

Yes, we do feel offended. Humans are programmed that way. But here in lies the rub. The moment you feel provoked, you allow all their crazy, provocative arguments to make sense. That is any rabble rouser’s dream come true.

Islam is a faith that straddles the entire planet. It requires no character certificates from anyone. On TV or Twitter. If some nutcase Muslim or a section of them continue to behave like psychopaths -- with blood on their minds – the stereotype only gets emboldened.

Should your faith be so frail that a cartoonist’s curved lines must shake it? Should the great God of Adam and Moses and Jesus and Muhammad want you to draw first blood because a little known, trashy, weekly racist mag, somewhere in Paris lampoons the divine? That would be a very narrow, fragile understanding of faith itself.

The truth is that we inhabit a crazy world. Freedom is like a hooker that is not available to all. Ideally there should be reasonable limits to what passes as freedom but since nothing is deemed sacred anymore, we need not fret or blow ourselves up. There is a virtue called tolerance. Quran talks about it quite a bit.

It is an incredible tool because not only does it insulate us from ignorance, tolerance often leads to real emancipation. It allows us to fight ideas with counter ideas, greater ideas, and greater art. If you are tolerant, you will -- in all probability -- not get multiple orgasms at these calls of baying for blood.

Killing someone because you dislike his or her version of the story, however gross, however repugnant, is a moral defeat of our own viewpoint. We must debate and express our opinions, vociferously. The right to feel irate is all too human. We must outrage when we feel slandered and offended but the answer should never be sword. It must always be the pen.

History, and the course of it, is always about ideas.

Peace

Sameer

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

There is a new Pasha on Fairview

Who would have thought that the BJP, known to most Kashmiris as Jan Sanghis before the advent of satellite TV, would one day come to form the government in Srinagar? It would seem beyond question that the same BJP, called by the PDP as ‘foreigners’ in TV debates (perhaps to score quick brownies) during election time has now transformed into a lovely bride, wearing saffron earrings. PDP, ofcourse being the prospective groom.

God knows Muzzi Beg, Drabu and Co could be gearing up for dastar poshi, as we get ready for the big fat Kashmiri wedding. Don’t be surprised if a certain Mevlana Gun Joo Rumi, who used to teach philosophy in another age, is seen dancing in the wedding party. Politics, especially the flighty variety practiced in Kashmir, can be nutty as fruitcake.

If Syed Ali Geelani is the big Peer of the freedom-loving generation, Mufti Sayed is no little Peer. In his 80s, the prodigal from Bijbehara is all set to be anointed as the valley’s new majesty. All his active life – in various political avatars and combinations – the elusive high chair played hide and seek with him. No more. It is time to glue him to it.

In between Mufti did manage to crown himself for three brief years, which was never going to be enough. For a man of his ambition, who is always well-turned out, wearing immaculate Sacoor suits even in Chillay Kalan and someone who spent a lifetime doing maths of getting to the top, three years is loose change. Kashmir needs a new healing touch and Mufti is the Midas.

For years old boy Geelani taunted the mainstreamers, calling them ‘daily wagers’ of New Delhi. While it hurt them in private, publicly they put up a brave face, attempting to reverse-mock Geelani, calling him an agent of Islamabad.The mainstreamers were however left with little excuse when Geelani began blasting Pakistan too, not too long ago, accusing it of over-passing the Kashmir cause.

It was in this context that pro-India parties began flirting with the idea of soft-separatism. While they would never enunciate the Azadi word in TV debates, occasional mouth-honor would be accorded to issues like AFSPA et al. When a certain General (now a federal minister) let the cat out of the bag last year, saying the mainstreamers in Kashmir are on army’s payrolls, everyone cried foul but no one had the balls to impeach him. So much for tokenism!

In the winter of 2015, the mighty National Conference of Sheri-Kashmir is discombobulated. Down to 15 seats, it is all but finished in large parts. The most Omar Abdullah, the erstwhile Czar of Gupkar, can do to salvage his honor is to taunt the Pasha of Fairview on Twitter. While it may have irked the PDP spokesperson somewhat, expect Mufti to stay unruffled and calm, holding cards close to his chest. Amit Shah or Saifuddin Soz, you never know how the Pasha will play his hand!

At the appointed hour, when soothsayers and Peers say that time is ripe and the stars are in perfect alignment, the groom shall wear one of his smart suits and a tie (done in Windsor knot to rub it in Abdullahs, proper).

Barkha Butt will be air dropped on a shikara at night, somewhere near Dal, where she will hold fort with nothing but a solitary Kangri and Nazir Masoodi's smirk. Her guests will be hauled from their hammams and a midnight debate shall ensue.

Mufti Mohamad Sayed would step out of Fairview to be the 9th CM of J&K.

Till then, lets just eat Harisa and stay calm.

@Sameer

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Lay thy finger thus

Lay thy finger thus, and let thy soul be instructed
—Othello, Act 2, Scene 1
William Shakespeare

The die has been cast. Inked fingers are fashionable in Kashmir now. Another matter it feels like we are fingering our own memories, which unfortunately are short-lived.

So the high priestess of Indian TV, Madame Barkha Dutt, has declared the elections a success. In the television mumbo-jumbo that TV anchors are usually good at, she called it ‘a thaw in the winter chill’ or some related smart crack. Squatting on a dastar-khawan with a few copper tramis laden with wazwan, there was a celebratory ring to her show. It had an artsy feel, complete with vapours rising from the food. Nazir Masoodi's self-control on such occasions must be appreciated.

The participants included Karan Singh’s son, with all the silk in his family heirloom, bound around his neck, and stuffed in his pockets and a KP film-maker (God knows what he has made) in an ill-fitting jacket and huge shirt collars. There was an elegant professor also. PDP’s spokesperson, draped in a black shawl, looked like a wise sage, who knows that success is near. Ofcourse the NC spokesperson, an old pal of mine, tried to sound intuitive but came across as a sailor who knows the storm is fierce and his ship is doomed.

In another space, another channel (I watch them in clutches on Youtube when I have a moment) the rabid Arnoub had assembled (as usual) a dozen people, none of whom he allowed to speak. Going a step further than Barkha, he announced the total rejection of separatism, now that Bandipora has voted 75% and the dawn of a new era in Kashmir. God knows where he wriggled the old fogey Hashim Qureshi from. Since the host has institutionalized the idea of being seriously a joke and a farce at the same time, he easily wasted another 60 minutes of the nation. In an ideal world they would put him in a rehab.

As the season of absurd continues, the vote frenzy has climaxed. Kashmir is very cold around this time and usually boring. Elections, the spectacle that it is, infuse some life into these drab settings. With the BJP rocking the show in the centre, Madison Square Garden and elsewhere, it appears that Modi’s star is on the ascendency. Flush with victory after another victory, he has already announced that India is where stem cell gyaan originated. Taking a clue, his minions are now saying Vedic India (1750–1000 BCE) had helicopters. Obviously by that logic Kashmir straight away belongs to Mohan Bhagwat’s RSS.

I reckon Kashmiris, being politically sharp if somewhat humbug, decided to spoil the party for the BJP. The generic political wisdom is that Jammu and its sphere of influence is under a spell of Modi and his jinn, the crazy as fox, Amit Shah, so lets join ranks and make sure that the saffron ghouls don’t come here in their Vedic drones. The overwhelming sentiment after Round 1, journalist friends inform, is that this indiscretion in the winter chill is not seen as disrespect to old boy Geelani. No way! If he wrote a book of calligraphy, tomorrow, and called it The Delicate Art of Defiance, by God, it will sell like hot cakes. But today people are simply in a mood to vote.

Sameer

Monday, November 17, 2014

Mehboob Ki Mehndi

Last night Mehboob Beg abandoned the ship. Perhaps hindsight is a good thing but Mirza Afzal Beg’s son didn’t wait for hindsight to dawn on him. Instead he dumped Omar. Like he had dumped Dr Farooq in the past to put Gul Shah on the throne. Then mysteriously he made up with doctor sahib and was politically rehabilitated.

His father, the legendary Mirza Afzal Beg, was Shiekh Abdullah’s lieutenant for decades, and was often hailed as Fakhr-e-Kashmir. He presided over the Plebiscite Front (Ah, how many times have we flirted with this darned Azadi business!) and was the legal brain behind the famous Indira-Sheikh accord.

Beg senior was sent to jail along with Sher-i-Kashmir in the infamous Kashmir conspiracy case. When the Sheikh was allowed to perform Hajj in 1965, he took two people along -- his wife, Begum Abdullah and Afzal Beg. Well all that is history now. In a hurriedly-called press conference yesterday, the NC called Beg junior a chameleon. Politics, they say, is colorful business. People change affiliations like a baby’s diapers.

Here is a clutch of Gupkar conversation from last night that we managed to pick up from our palace sources. It had to be brief because some BSF walla, stationed outside Omar’s villa, went mad this morning and started shooting at ducks in the compound.

A big black rotary dial telephone, without lettering on the finger wheel, comes alive. Sheikh Abdullah used it once to make calls to Nehru. It has become fashionable to abuse Nehru in Delhi these days. Sheikh’s grave needs to be protected in Srinagar by men in uniform with carbines.

The phone rings. Omar, a cross between looking glum and tickled, takes the call.

OA: Yes, dad, it is true. What do you mean how true?

Doc: Faan ha karov atey saersi.

OA: Talk in English or Urdu, dad. What is Faan?

Doc: Kihi na. It is the Muftis, I know.

OA: Why blame them? It is our deadwood.

Doc: Haya potra if we lose men at this rate, soon it will be you and Nasir alone left in the party.

OA: Mehboob wanted to be a hero.

Doc: Hero, my foot! What is happening in Beeroh (Beerwah). Put a pheran on and visit Beeroh daily, booztha.

OA: I tweet daily, dad.

Doc: Haya only journalists read your tweets.

OA: Mehboob was bad-mouthing them till Saturday.

Doc: Beg calls Mufti a ‘visionary’. Jigar ha dodum. It was like a dagger in the bosom.

OA: We are the only and the oldest nationalistic party. They can’t possibly take us on.

Doc: Haya Sheikh Ghulam Rasool tya nivok. Kuni na rood na kah.

OA: You know dad I was joking with Devender last night that they have Ashiq and Mehboob both.

Doc: You think it is funny! That Devender’s brother is BJP’s CM aspirant.

OA: You trusted Karan Singh’s son Ajatshatru. He is also supping with the devil.

Doc: Hay kus tavan.

OA: Electoral politics, dad. PDP's time perhaps.

Doc: It should be Al-bain always.

OA: Let Mufti yield the broom.

Doc: Kursi is important.

OA: Now what?

Doc: Make sure no one takes the leader of the opposition kursi from you.

@Sameer

Friday, October 03, 2014

Haider: Shakespeare in Srinagar

Haider suffers from a fundamental flaw. It attempts to marry the Kashmir narrative to Hamlet, a famous play by William Shakespeare. The Bard’s play (written between 1599-1602) is about ‘revenge’ while Kashmir, any dispassionate observer will tell you, is essentially about ‘aspiration’. Whilst it is sincere, even daring, of Vishal Bhardwaj to make a very different film, I reckon he may have ended up confounding it. Hamlet is a revenge saga. Haider has revenge as a recurring theme running for most parts. Kashmiris seek no retribution. Ask any random Kashmiri. It was and always has been about aspirations.

I had a lump in my throat when they showed naked men being brutally tortured in Srinagar’s infamous incarceration centers. Waves of young men have been through that torment; those godawful times when spelling out the word ‘Freedom’ meant you had to undergo third-degree. Democracy has its moods, you see. Times have changed. Kashmiris are now writing furious books. The problem is that audiences in India do not consume much literature. They consume movies. That is why Haider becomes important. It rewinds us back to the dark 90s and the political intrigue at play during those days.

Given that Bollywood usually ends up making trashy films around Kashmir, Haider indeed sets the bar a notch higher. It has its strong points and a number of weaknesses. The story drags at times but captivates you in equal parts. Dreary skies and a silent snowfall, captured almost poetically, transports you smack to countryside Kashmir. Watch it for lovely cinematography; watch it for the Kashmiri accented Urdu and English words (deliberate, beautifully delivered) and some powerful acting.

Kashmiri peculiarities, like our accents and the way a majority of us speak English and even Hindi/Urdu has been nicely outlined. Vishal has captured the oddity that a lot of non-Kashmiris may not notice – our emphasis on Vs and Ds for instance -- when talking in the Queen’s language. Shraddha Kapoor, playing Shahid’s love interest, effectively conveys this when she says lo-V-ed (with an emphasis on V), much to the delight of her lover and the Kashmiri audiences. This requires a keen ear. Her unearthly crooning of a Kashmiri folk song in the snow, towards the end, is equally poignant.

Tabu is a class apart. She reprises the role of Gertrude powerfully. The turbulent relationship with her son Haider, who resents her for falling for his uncle Khurram (Kay Kay in a career best performance) after he conspired to have his Tehreek- loving brother ‘disappear’ has been beautifully handled. There is an undertone of Oedipus complex and a subtle erotic tension between the mother and son, which surely is part of Hamlet, but could have been easily done away while dealing with a sensitive topic like half-widows.

Not a masterpiece by any stretch of imagination but a sincere effort. Never before has a film of such intensity been attempted on Kashmir by Bollywood, so this is definitely a first. As long as the medium of movies – in this case Haider -- initiates a dialogue about the dark secrets of democracy – custodial killings, disappearances, half-widows – I am all for it. There indeed is a danger of compartmentalizing the tragedy of Kashmir into neat boxes of human rights abuse and harsh laws like AFSPA. In some scenes the film adds nothing new with its standard Bollywood-style pontification to the gumrah natives.

There are several compelling moments in the film though. Haider’s thoughtful conversation in a single-shot frame with his mother leaves you shifty; there is a hauntingly surreal scene at the clock tower in Lal Chowk, Srinagar’s focal point. A power-packed dialogue – at once philosophical and abstract -- in which Haider weighs the moral ramifications of living and dying is insanely real. Comparing death to sleep, he talks about the end to suffering and uncertainty it might bring, paraphrasing the iconic Shakespearean adage: To be, or not to be: that is the question.

Curiously the protagonist uses the word chutzpah at key points in Haider. Vishal – or Basharat may be – has smartly inserted the Hebrew word to reflect a double entendre – or a double-edged sword – depending upon how you see it. Chutzpah rhymes with both AFSPA and a common Hindi profanity. Since Kashmir is often likened to a paradox, wedged dangerously between two nuclear-armed nations, the film-maker appears to draw attention to the tomfoolery of it all. Ironically they get it wrong. Chutzpah is pronounced Khutz-pah with K.

The confusion prevails. No pièce de résistance this. A very good film.

@Sameer

PS: You can safely ignore the cynics and morally f*** up Twitter nationalists.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Four boys on a beach



A sea has no roof
whither warning bombs knock

Just fisherfolk digging happiness
upon sands of time

Beaches of Gaza
with no Iron Domes

Only shore-fulls of sea shell
with sea secrets in them

Merging point of waves
and four little boys

Running on spindly legs
after a soft white ball

Upon small smooth pebbles
carried by the tide

Near a stubborn sea
where fishing is a crime

Leaning against sky
toes deep in sand

Whisper whisping
chasing a tattered ball

Birds, like bumble bees
chirruping on their breath

Suddenly a sea storm
and drumfire from hell

Like sea burnt wood
legs bent at odd angles

Pirates drawn by laughter
horridly asphyxiating happiness

The ball and the beach exist
only the boys don't

Sameer


Tribute to Mohammed 9, Ahed 10, Zakaria 10, and Mohammed Bakr 11, the four boys killed on the beach in Gaza on July 16, 2014.

The art work is by Jerusalem-based Amir Schiby who has generously allowed me to use the image.