Thursday, October 06, 2016

Our many squandered songs

Every time I made an attempt, they sent me back.

I was in Kashmir recently. As has happened many times in the past, I often get caught up in the middle of political upheavals. There were no signs of any impending disaster. As with earthquakes, no early warning system went off.

Boulevard — that lovely drive by the Dal Lake that is at once romantic and old-world — was abuzz with tourists, huddling together, pouting, and taking selfies with wooden houseboats in the backdrop. A faint scattering of lights had begun to appear on Kohi-Maran. A little ahead, a Kingfisher, a common sight in Kashmir, darted obliquely into the lake, at a fish, it was perhaps espying.

Eid passed off tranquilly. The bakery smelled of heaven. Food was plentiful. There was much socializing. I met my friends. Neighbours came over. Some relatives called. Several invitations were extended over phone. While drawing up plans for a picnic in the hills — complete with camping gear — I was suddenly reminded of a distant uncle. He lived in another part of the town and had been unwell. In the excitement of being home, and getting around, uncle had escaped my memory.

On the second evening after Eid, I rang him up. He didn’t answer. I called up his son, who picked up the phone. He sounded pleased and asked why I hadn’t come over. A shade embarrassed, I apologized. I understand the social mise en scène in Kashmir. People feel bad, doubly so, if you come from foreign lands, and don’t visit them.

I asked about uncle. It is bad news, he replied. Uncle is bedridden, suffering from bronchial asthma. A chain smoker (it was once rumored that he wanted to marry a tobacconist’s daughter simply because of an allure of free tobacco supply for a lifetime), his lungs had finally given up at 65. It was chronic, his son said, and father gets severe attacks of coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness at night. I promised to drop by. Uncle’s face kept flashing in my head. Even in my thoughts, he had a cigarette dangling on his lip.

Suddenly I wanted to see him right away. If I were abroad — as I mostly am — I would have jumped in my car and driven off to see someone, but Kashmir has its own cultural circumference. You may go unannounced to a friend or a relative but to turn up at someone’s home at night, just like that, might make you a social bumpkin, an awkward. I decided to wait it out till next morning.

This must have been the same time that first political tremors were being felt in the valley. All at once a flurry of messages started coming on my phone. This popular rebel then (now almost a cult figure in death) but still a Himalayan Robin Hood at that instant, was killed. ‘No way — I thought.’ I expressed my incredulity to a journalist friend on whatsapp. Must be a rumor, I tried to sound reasonable. Next he sent me a gory picture of the rebel’s body.

It was the young lad — in his early 20s, lips a little ajar, as if insufflating his boyhood to whoever had clicked his body. The sharp lines of his long stubble were perfectly aligned. He lay lifeless on a police stretcher, photographed at an unflattering angle — perhaps in a deliberate effort to denigrate his aura, in death, if not in life. I understood the significance of the moment. It was pivotal. Things would change.

And things did change. Authorities, knowing that they have taken out an extremely popular rebel, quickly slapped one of the harshest curfews in recent times. A concomitant strike called by the pro-freedom camp ensued. All businesses remained shut. No milkmen came with supplies. Villagers ferrying vegetables to the town were sent back by the soldiers. Overnight an invisible curse had transformed the paradise into a penitentiary.

I wanted to visit my chain-smoking uncle but there was no way to go. Wherever one looked, stones rained. Without warning, locks of anger, pent up for years, had been flung open. It seemed that the only weapons, which the dispossessed had in its armory, were stones. This was responded to with brute force — bullets, pellets and stun grenades. The street outside uncle’s home was red. There was no way I could go to see him.

Over phone, his son, voice laced with panic, said that tear gas shells had further aggravated uncle’s asthma. The previous morning, he had nearly chocked to death. I reassured him that things would be better; curfew would be lifted soon and we could take his father to a good doctor or move him elsewhere — to breathe some fresh air. I recalled their sizable apple orchard with dozens of delicious apple trees. When we were younger, we would often run around those trees, amidst apple fragrance, as uncle oversaw workers in his farms. It was hard, all these years later, to see our memories being set alight.

A few days later I attempted to walk to uncle’s home. By now all phones were blocked and Internet was switched off in Kashmir. I took the interior alleyway. From a distance I saw soldiers manning the back road that would have led me to uncle’s home. These were pathways, doted with turtledoves, which we had taken all our lives. As I got near, the cops signaled me to go back. I tried to shout, saying I must see a patient. They didn’t listen.

                                                    Sopore, June 2016 (Photo: Sameer) 

Someone said that the only way to reach the airport was just after dawn. One had to wait outside the airport for a few hours till they opened the gates and allow you in. I was supposed to fly out of India the next day. Overcome by guilt of not being able to see uncle — or even ask about his well being over phone (internet continues to be blocked and outgoing calls barred in Kashmir even three months later), I decided to make one last ditch attempt.

Once again — third time during two weeks — I took off on foot for uncle’s home. You couldn’t take the main road because concertina wire blocked all entry and exit points. Cops acknowledged no curfew passes. Walking along the pasturage of our little town, down the back alley, past the singing turtledoves, by the dirt track, it began to drizzle. My uncle’s home was in sight now. Hundred yards and a road separated us. I felt deeply poignant.

Here is an extract of the exact conversation I had with cops.

“Can I cross this road?”

“There is curfew.”

“I need to see my uncle. He is very sick.”

“We have orders to not allow anyone to cross.”

“Please. I have to fly tomorrow.”

“Go away.”

I turned back. It was futile.

The turtledove was still singing on my way back. It had a sad song.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

No notes tonight

It was not Amjad Sabri, who was the colossus of the famed Sabri clan — a family that chewed betel leaves and made magical music — but his father Ghulam Farid Sabri. Direct descendants of Mian Tansen — a Navaratna in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor Jalal ud-din Muhammed Akbar — they belonged to the Sabriya silsila of Sufism. Humble people who conquered the world with a simple harmonium and the power of their vocals. The Sabri brothers universalised Qawali — an energetic rendition in which words spiral high above all those assembled, like a whirlwind, to gently tap on the doors of heaven.

Amjad certainly carried forward the illustrious legacy of his extremely talented father and forefathers. Although less commercially-inclined than his contemporary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri carried within his heavyset form a deep-seated love for God and His messenger. He would sing paeans to the Lord in a baritone that had no match, over and over again. He burst into a song as if the whole world was his. That is the thing with Sufis. They transcend the realm of love, which the forces of hate can never fathom.

With his murder, the last of the great Sabris has been silenced forever. The mystic notes are gone. They say that Sufi kalaam is akin to the chirrup of birds in a jungle; the jungle being a metaphor for the temporal. Rumi wrote nearly 750 years ago, ‘Sing like the birds that sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.’ Tragic that we should witness birdsongs being erased right in front of our eyes.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

What a time to be alive!

In all probability the empress is fasting. Why else would she say then that there are just four bunkers in the valley? Kashmir is a continuous bunker. The state, with a population of slightly more than 10 million, has an estimated 700,000 soldiers, making it perhaps the highest civilian military ratio anywhere in the world. (70:1,000). The American counter insurgency manual says that ratios close to 25:1,000 are enough to achieve geographical dominance. Four bunkers? Like you can’t be serious?

You have to be fasting. Or anxious. In two days the Anantnag constituency will go to bypolls. Miss Mufti, the incumbent CM of J&K, is likely to win. According to press reports, between 50 to 100 people gathered at different spots during her road trips. Complete with paraphernalia, Miss Mufti’s Mama ji and other PDP stalwarts are camping in the constituency, criss-crossing villages, galvanizing voters. Raj Babbar has also arrived to campaign. New Delhi-based TV channels are itching to call it ‘Return of Peace’. They just can’t wait.

Even as Ramzan and polls concur in the South of Kashmir, everyone and his uncle who might have dissented and spoken otherwise, are under lock and key. Democracy is a clever sahar-khawn. It knows where to beat its drums. It would be insane, for instance, to let Geelani sahib, out of Hyderpora. Not only will people pour out in droves, he might actually put his fierce Urdu to a devastating effect. Best to keep pro-freedom leadership from upsetting the TV achors, who have specially flown from Delhi. Iftar parties, after all, cannot be a vinegary affair.

Even if 5% of those who attend a fallen rebel’s funeral were to vote, one would call it representative. The fact is that people don’t really enjoy this panoply of farce upon a farce. Yes, putting all the state machinery to use for over a month, wandering from village to village, panchayat to panchayat, does provide for some lazy Ramzan-time entertainment, but it means little if you don’t address the lament in people’s hearts; their aspirations and hopes.

Back in Srinagar a school founded by DP Dhar’s son shall now tell us how to dress. In the middle of Ramzan. This is 2016, not 1971.


Monday, June 06, 2016

Theorizing in Ramzan

When non-namazis outnumber regular mosque goers, you can safely conclude that the holiest month in the Islamic calendar is here. All roads shall lead to masjids tonight, where the devout will read the Quran; supplications shall be made. Butchers will cut more lamb, bakeries will bake more and Rajasthani dates will sell like hot cakes. During Iftar the dilemma that many faithful shall confront is not whether the Imam will recite long suras in the shaam namaz, but where to keep the seed of the date? A theory on what to do with the seed is yet to come from the IAS academy.

In related developments, the bickering between mainstream political parties has suddenly spiraled in the valley. Rashid engineer – with his fingers in too many pies – is spoiling the party for the PDP in exactly the same fashion that he used to spoil it for Omar. A few days back, in an act of sudden nostalgia, engineer trained guns at his old nemesis — NC — again. Perturbed, the grand old party of Kashmir unleashed their best weapon: Akbar Lone. In big headmaster glasses and freshly dyed hair, he led a verbal-carnage on engineer. Being a man of the street, MLA Langate gave it back to the old boor, only to be dubbed as an agent. ‘You are an IB man’. That is like the worst form of gaali in Kashmir. Worse than wishing someone death. Engineer is still recovering from the shock.

Meanwhile democracy continues unabated in the valley. All pro-freedom leaders have been imprisoned or detained or house-arrested in a major pre-Ramzan sweep, you see, just to make it more democratic during the holy month. Miss Mufti has to campaign in her bypolls, cut a few red ribbons at ATMs and coffee shops, and propose more cat and dog tales. There must be no noise in the backdrop. It spoils the carefully designed prop and ends up showing everything in a bad light. So a case dating back to the Maharaja’s time will be dusted and old boy Yasin shall be booked under it. Madame will cut more ribbons. A rented crowd will clap. Perfect. Democracy. 10/10.

As Satan is put in chains (imagine someone like Donald Trump without his wig, confined to Trump Towers for a month), Kashmiris get ready to welcome Ramzan. They shall, however, await a word from Radio Pakistan tonight, not withstanding all the hearts and minds, and pigeon and cat, and other propaganda theories. They will wait and wait until the announcement comes. Even the IAS afsars will wait. There is no theory to beat that sentiment.

Ramzan Mubarak


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Throwing the cat among the pigeons

When our parents were growing up, there used to be a huge sheri-bakra divide in the valley. So essentially there were lions and there were lambs. Srinagar was a very dangerous jungle. The lions would attempt to frighten the lambs and call it fair. These were democratic rules of the jungle. The circus masters in Delhi cheered them on. This carried on for a long time.

Then one day the lambs got together in Srinagar, in Sopore, in Islamabad, in Bandipore, in Kupwara, in Kokernag — all over the place. They decided enough is enough. If the lions can maul us, and call it democratic, let us beat them at their own game. Let us run for elections. Let us show them we are not meek pushovers. The year was 1987.

Sure enough the lions panicked. The circus masters in Delhi were alarmed. They were afraid of two things — a) lions are a better deal. When they perform, the audience claps, b) lambs were untested. They were ideologically inverse, even if easily bullied. Also the lions had many ruffians and butchers on their side. Intellectuals are brilliant but they are not good at rigging elections.

So the lions — cunning old boys that they were — beat them at the democratic exercise. Lambs lost badly. Their votes floated in the Jhelum and flowed all the way to Pakistan. The ringmasters breathed a sigh of relief. Geelani sahib — whom Sanghi retards like to call a broker these days — and others went into oblivion. The lions continued their rule, unchallenged.

A few years later there was mutiny in the jungle. The lions fled. Their ringmasters vanished into thin air. What started as a take-over, a revolution of sorts, soon turned into pandemonium. While it is true that uprisings, because of their very nature of insubordination, are usually messy, ours was a little extra sloppy. Two and a half decades on, we are still unsure about what hit us in 1989.

What we remember — for sure — is everything that transpired in this interim. The horrid, hellish stuff that took place. But even before we could figure out how to make our way out of the woods — that are deep and dark, the ringmasters were back. This time around they had another set of creatures to cheer on.

And as if to paper-over everything that we have been through, and make little of our collective indignations, we now have a new name: cats. Suddenly it feels as if a cat has kittened in our mouths. Move over, bakras. The cats have cometh.

Ms Mufti is a fellow Kashmiri. If we have cat whiskers, she too has cat claws. Eventually all cats are gray in the dark.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ek Mulaqat

PM: I know you are upset.

MM: One is ‘naraz’ with one's own.

PM: Getting angry doesn’t solve anything.

MM: That is why I'm here.

PM: Leave these tantrums.

MM: Give me a few CBMs.

PM: I shall write you a nice tweet.

MM: I’m not Omar.

PM: OK, I will say something nasty about the Abdullahs.

MM: I want something concrete.

PM: How about evening flights at the Srinagar airport?

MM: Big deal! These NC wallas track night flights.

PM: I don’t know what else to give you.

MM: You know what I want.

PM: Listen, you shall be exempt from singing Bharat Mata Ki.

(At this point Amit Shah and other heavy-duty gents in the ante-room come running, hollering: Jai, Jai. The PM looks at them sternly, signaling ‘all is well’!)

MM: Can’t you offer me something better?

PM: Would you like Anupam Kher as the brand ambassador of Kashmir?

MM: No way. He is like an Amritsari shawl. Not even proper Kashmiri.

PM: You mean a cheapster?

MM: A fake shawl. If you know what that means.

PM: Get me an original pashmina shawl next time.

MM: I will. I promise. Just give me something — this one time.

PM: We can give you a quota in JNU.

MM (snidely): I hope you won’t call it anti-national quota?

PM: You just gave me a poor joke (PJ) for my new tweet.

MM: Keep my request in mind, please.

PM: Yes, yes. Of course.

MM: See you soon.

PM: Make sure the shawl has my name all over it.

@Sameer | PS: This communication is pure pasquinade. tongue emoticon

Thursday, December 31, 2015

#Kashmir2015 — A year of quaking

Perhaps only a gay marriage would scandalize Kashmiris more. So when PDP entered into a wedlock with the BJP earlier this year, most people’s WTF meter went up several notches. It was blasphemy — of the highest order, some thought. You can’t afford to have a Shyama Prasad Mukherjee school of thought coming up bang in the middle of Srinagar.

Nine months after taking oath as the 6th CM of J&K, Sayed is in the ICU at Delhi's AIIMS
Days following the coronation of Mufti Sayed and his motley cabinet, the common refrain was one of shock. Darn, it was clearly not what Kashmiris had risked their voting fingers for, but you see, the inevitable had already happened. Nine months on, the PDP-BJP combine seems to be going steady, with occasional tu-tu-mein-mein but then what is a marriage without an occasional feud. Wise men call it the spice of life.

There were more rumours in end-March. It continued to rain for days on end. Big deal — it pours incessantly in many parts of the world but Kashmir is different. We have a creaky infrastructure, our rivulets aren’t properly drained and sewage overflows in rainfall. A non-stop spell of rain can spell doom.

Everyone uploaded flood gauge readings — Sangam, Ram Munshibagh and Asham — on social media — 24 X 7

Memory afresh with the flooding of 2014, March rains bothered us a great deal. Social media, with its increasing flocks of rumor-mongers meant that pictures from previous year’s big floods went into circulation. Naturally the nation’s collective blood pressure shot up. It came down only when the rains stopped. Soon the usual madness resumed.

In between there were several mid-summer tremors. Some shadowy guys emerged from the woodwork and started bumping off people in the telecom business apart from targeting cell phone towers. In the last 25 years almost everything has been attacked in Kashmir — from the headless white horse that stood outside Pestonji building on Residency Road (now relocated to an godawful mini mall, I hear) to lorries carrying cattle.

Targeting the sad-looking towers was a new low, even by Kashmiri standards. In any case several landlords, frightened to death, asked telecom operators to remove the vile towers from their properties. Since dismantling of towers was going to take some time, an enterprising landlord got a hastily written banner up outside his home: Is badbakht tower ko hum ne nakara kar kiya hai. (We have rendered this wretched tower useless). Just by way of abundant precaution, some would say.

And autumn gave way to winter. Suddenly a political quake swayed the valley on Christmas. Just when Pakistan was getting ready to celebrate the birthday of its two great fathers — Jinnah (founding father) and Nawaz Sharif (father of all things rich), in strode the selfie samrath of India — PM Modi — along with 100 wise men.

By some fluke or luck it was also the wedding day of Mehr-u-Nisa, the beautiful granddaughter of PM Sharif, and who better to bless the newly-weds than Don Corleone himself. Kashmiris watched in horror as Nawaz Sharif, himself a true-blooded Kashmiri, strutted around in a pink turban gifted by his bbf, a token of endearment understood only by those under 30, with the exception of Pakistan’s Prime Minister, perhaps.

Sharif has been at pains to explain that the pink turban — now an urban myth — was not from Modi. The media refuses to believe.

That same night there was a massive earthquake, shaking parts of Pakistan and Kashmir. Since the epicenter was somewhere in Afghanistan, conspiracy theorists and gossip mills got their grist — almost readymade. So Modi visited Afghanistan, and then Pakistan, bringing about the quake. As Kashmir is at the core of it all, we had to shake along.

Heck, despite chilay-kalan and the icebox chill it brings along, millions of Kashmiris ran outside at midnight, huffing and puffing, seeking forgiveness from Almighty. Attributed to a combination of our many grave sins, Modi’s impromptu Pakistan visit and the wrath of God, social media updates came thick and fast. Next morning less than 0.5 per cent of the population was up at fajr for prayers. Over 99 per cent slept it off.

God, it is expected, shall be merciful in 2016. Hope is the step-brother of faith.

© Sameer