Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Whose entrails are these?

Do humans inhabit only one side of the wall?
Whose entrails are these in the town hall?
Do they only have mothers in Tel Aviv?
In Gaza why do so many women grieve?
Why is the civilized world so silent?
Are they immune to a million lament?
Can only white kids whimper and weep?
Can only brown children be bombed in sleep?
What is so likeable about Santa Claus?
Across river Jordan why does humankind pause?
Do they have friends in Israel alone?
Will Palestinian pals forever mourn?
Is the blood in Sderot so priceless?
Is the blood in Al-Shati so worthless?

Sameer

PS: Just four months after the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish passed away, Israel began its latest blitzkrieg in Gaza. Darwish's evocative poetry expressed the pain and belonging for his homeland. 'Whose entrails are these?' is my tribute to Darwish and the innocent people of his beloved Palestine. ~ Sameer

Monday, December 29, 2008

Israel's festival of lights


Raze down those olive trees
Bulldoze those houses, please
Build the wall and damn them all
Raze down those olive trees
~Lorelei


Israel is currently celebrating the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. People eat jelly donuts and cheese. Families get together to light nine special candles in ornamental branched candle-stands. There are four lights on each side and a major light in the middle. As the middle candle is lit on the last night of Hanukkah, observant Jews believe that the Lord will save them from any accidental wrong doing.

Yesterday as the Jewry lit candles on candelabrums and fried more donuts in oil, 70 Israeli F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopters quietly took off and fired dozens of missiles on the occupied Gaza Strip, killing at least 235 people and injuring hundreds more. The dead included young police officers at their graduation ceremony, school children walking back from school and ordinary Palestinians returning to their homes. There was no warning. Lord doth forgive the Israelis for their transgressions. This is Hanukkah season.

More people are likely to die as the rubble is being cleared. Hospital’s are on the brink. They do not have basic facilities to cope with the scale of the catastrophe. Since 2006 Israel has led a punitive economic blockade of Gaza. That is when Hamas came to power. All imports are banned. Exports of all form are banned. Initially medicines and basic foodgrains were allowed. Later Israel moved to stop even the bare necessities. All borders are sealed. Like ugly sadists, the likes of Ehud Barak, Israel's thuggish defense minister, waited and watched the pressure-cooker situation in Gaza. Human rights went up in slow steam.

In reality Hamas proposed a cease-fire. It repeated the offer last year. A cease-fire means – as the brilliant Israeli columnist Uri Avnery explained: the Palestinians will stop shooting Qassams, the Israelis will stop the incursions into Gaza, the targeted assassinations and the economic blockade. But Israel has its own devilish plans. They don’t like Hamas, so no talks with the folks -- albeit Hamas, however radical, is democratically elected. Instead starve the population, squeeze them and when it doesn’t work – Bomb the hell out of them. This is Hanukkah season.

It is a pity that always works for the Zionist state. Israel knows full well that the neighboring thick rascal Hosni Mubarak won’t say a thing against these bombings. A few days prior to the bloody blitzkrieg in Gaza, the Israeli foreign minister – and PM designate – Tzipi Livni [Daughter of Jewish terrorist Irgun’s Eitan Livni] broke bread with Hosni. Did she explain Israel’s ongoing policy of collective punishment to the Egyptian strongman? Most Arab states remain shallow monarchies and can’t spoil Israel’s holiday party.

Israel’s collective punishment policy is a cold litmus test to see how far can the Palestinian’s take it. This has resulted in silent deaths and untold sufferings for the ordinary folk. As Ali Abunimah, author of One Country: A Bold Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse writes: In Gaza, Palestinians die[d] silently, for want of basic medications: insulin, cancer treatment, products for dialysis prohibited from reaching them by Israel.

What the media never question[s] is Israel's idea of a truce. It is very simple. Under an Israeli-style truce, Palestinians have the right to remain silent while Israel starves them, kills them and continues to violently colonize their land. Israel has not only banned food and medicine but it is also intent on starving minds: due to the blockade, there is not even ink, paper and glue to print textbooks for schoolchildren.

The UN has asked Israel to halt its aggression but it won’t stop. You see Israel isn’t exactly Iran. It is a democracy. It can kill at will. These killings show a pattern: Willful targeting of the civilians and a clear violation of the prohibition against willful killings. Willful killings are a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention under Article 147 and therefore, a war crime.

Israel’s actions are a gross transgression against both -- humanity and its God. Even in Hanukkah!

Sameer


[Let's keep the vigil, lest we forget: People in Spain protest]


[Turks condemn the killings]


[Victims of the Israeli adventure]

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas


Christmas Eve is absolutely delightful. Period. As a kid I loved the idea of a fat old man, white as snow, sledging his way from the North Pole, where he is believed to have a secret gift factory [There are people who’d want IAEA experts to go check if Santa really makes toffees and cakes and not yellowcake in there…You can never trust anyone with a flowing beard these days]. I’ve forever imagined Santa’s red coattails fluttering to a million claps by all the world’s little children. And chimney's through which the old boy slides in. Who does not love such beautiful innocent myths?

Christmas has always been about snow and Santa. And Santa’s reindeer with those weird antlers. It is that time of the year when you don stocking caps and eat cakes and sing carols. To humankind! Though it has been commercialized by the sinister market wolfs, Christmas is still loved by most people. The religious, the irreligious and the complete godless. I've hardly known a bloke who did not like the merry-making that Christmas epitomizes. And its distilled spirit of goodness.

For some strange reason Christmas makes people smile a lot. It engulfs the whole world in a congenial conspiracy of love. It is when the irrational becomes rational. An unwed mother 'Virgin Mary' gives birth to 'Christ'. The unpalatable becomes palatable and the north star appears. The unreal becomes real. Three wise men come looking for a new born. And hymns float. Snow falls. Lore becomes fact. A lone bell begins to tintinnabulate. The sheer joy of it all.

Frankly I am not very religious. I am culturally Muslim and spiritually liberal. I like Christmas for all its feel-good character.
I want a million Christmas trees to grow. The lights to glow. The bells to toll. The cakes to bake. The hymns to pop. The love to grow.

We -- irrespective of our color and belief system – are wired to celebrate the good and the beautiful. Encore.

Sameer

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Soprich Gaadh

[The fish of Sopore]

Sopore is a small township in Kashmir peculiar for two completely unrelated things. Fish and burial grounds. The place is populated along mossy grave yards. So you have the main marketplace – called Iqbal market [named after the poet-thinker Iqbal] – perched on a graveyard. The Sopore hospital and fire station sit atop old graves. The degree college too borders a cemetery. So amidst the dead, Sopore lives and breathes. Along with its famous fish.

In Sopore they will make you believe that Kadal tal-chi [fish netted just around/beneath the old bridge] are the tastiest. Kashmiris generally have a strong fascination for bridges. You could be called a Kadal-jinn [demon of the bridge] if you have a particularly threatening disposition. And perchance if the bridge is blown up [which occasionally happens] boatmen would then carry you to cross the river in small boats. Ofcourse they charge you for it. That is Kadal-tar [fare of the bridge] for you. Such old world charms!

[Fish market, Sopore]

Coming back to fish, you get the world’s best fish [that is what the locals believe and I mostly agree] in Sopore’s boisterous Gaadh Baazar [fish market]. Fisher folk, sell their Kashur Gaadh [Kashmiri fish] at exorbitant prices here. The fisherwomen are fierce. One has got to be very good at haggling or you could end up burning a huge hole in the pocket. You have to be alert and keep an eye on the scales too. [Not the fish scales but the weighing scales] And if you are lucky and get a good price and your scales are not tampered with, you can lay your hands on incredibly clean, fresh fish at Sopore’s very disorderly fish arcade.

At home the fish is painstakingly cleaned. Inside out. For hours. Till the fish is clean as a whistle. In Kashmir people can be very finicky about these things. Then they sit down to cook the fish. It is the most flat-out, ardent exercise you’ll ever experience. Spices are carefully sifted to be tossed into the pan, while the fish is being sautéed. Vur [a concoction of specially dried herbs] and other secret ingredients are religiously mixed at various stages of cooking. Haak [Collards] is added to compliment the fish. It resembles a mini-war effort. Under no circumstances can you afford to disturb the hash slinger.

For centuries Kashmiris have invited their sons-in-law for Gaadh bata [Fish food]. The cooked fish is believed to taste better the next day. Usually relished in winters, the super-spicy, aromic, flaccid, yummy fish is always served with hot white rice. Lot of it, actually. Just fish and rice. Nothing else. It is a dish fit for the kings. Not even a nuclear war between India and Pakistan can tear you from your plate of food.

And when it comes to fish, Sopore rowdily leads from the front.

Sameer

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

An Iraqi sneakers spectacle

Moab is my washpot; over Edom will I cast out my shoe
Psalms 60:8, King James Version


Bush Jr had two number 10 boots thrown at him in Iraq. Parting gift for the dog, the journalist Muntader Al Zeidi hollered, as red-faced sleuths quickly bundled him out of the conference room. The most powerful man on earth stood rather powerless, trying to figure out what is going on. In his characteristic strut Bush attempted to play down the footgear drama but the damage was already done. Unsurprisingly his yes man Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki looked utterly bewildered. The lowly boots despoiled the carefully scripted party.

The leather projectiles were a tribal Arab way of telling the big bully what they really think of him. Bush may like to believe that he has liberated Iraq but he clearly hasn’t been able to win any friends there. Reports suggest that the first shoe flew closely by his right cheek and he had to duck to avoid the second one as it whooshed over his head, narrowly missing it. Wonder what would have happened had the shoe actually hit him, a journalist friend asked rather curiously? The option of invading Iraq again is ruled out, since you can't invade a country twice, I reassured him.

They are now saying that the Al Baghdadiya TV journalist who pulled off this innovative assault was against the Iraq war. At media schools they teach you that the journalism means courage. Muntader perhaps took his classes seriously. All it took the 29 year to avenge years of misery and dolor perpetuated by Bush Jr was an audacious and a hugely symbolic act -- on live TV -- that left the whole world stunned. Muntader carefully removed his shoes, while the secret service looked away. He got 3 seconds to toss both boots at Bush Jr. In 4 seconds he was a hero. That is all it takes!

A group has been created in Face book dedicated to the journalist. It is called "The Iraqi Journalist who threw his shoes at Bush is my new HERO!” A few hours after it was created more than 630 people have joined in. Others are lining up. Several similar groups have sprung up. A middle-eastern businessman has offered US$10 million to buy the pair of shoes. Though I don’t personally like flinging shoes at presidents, I’d admit that people will throw anything at you as long as you bomb their homes and pummel their backyard.

Sameer



Sunday, December 14, 2008

Delhi's Bizarre Bazzars

Text and Images: Sameer

Sandwiched between the imposing Delhi civil secretariat and Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum is a dusty chunk of land where all bootleggers of the world meet on Sunday. So for a change if you don’t want to blow your bucks in an upscale mall, the place to go is Delhi’s original Chor Bizzare [The market of the thieves]. I have always been fascinated by the name of the place. Why don’t the cops catch them, I asked my pals when I first heard about it many years back. Welcome to the adult’s weird piazza, came a prompt answer.

Chor Bizzare is a flea market where scraggy people get together – every weekend -- to haggle their wares. There is everything you can think of. Car-tyres. Fake chocolates. Redone stuff. Pirated CDs. Imitation watches. Nuts and bolts. Duplicate labels. Second hand rugs. Phony daggers. Counterfeit counters selling computers. In between, if you have a keen eye and know where to look, you may as well get your hands on an original. The catch is: Bargain hard. Everything is available at throw-away prices. If the shady salesman quotes a prize, immediately slash it to half and then begin by offering to pay a further Rs 50 less. It works. Actually.

I don’t know how the place got its rather quirky name. I don’t quite think people sell only pilfered wares at Chor Bizzare although some of the stuff may be purloined. A few pairs of shoes, sold at dirt cheap prices, looked original without a dot of imagination. Old timers recall that the market used to be set up around Red fort but was eventually moved to its present location by the police.

Frequented by the have-nots, students, curious and the sundry, Chor Bizzare is worth a visit. Pity I returned with only a layer of dust on my coiffure.

Sameer

Chick fashion: Treadstones and zippers await customers

Shades and daggers: Buy one, get one free

Cigars, any one?

Kiss me, Hug me Teddies

PC pedestals: Open air computer peripheries

Thursday, December 11, 2008

It is December!

Festivals are perfect excuses to turn into a glutton. I don’t think people do much more than gormandize on vast amounts of food. So Eid came and in keeping with the tradition I very much wolfed lamb. And I didn’t for a moment think of calories. I ate as if I was competing in a food Olympiad. And now I’m feeling guilty as hell. It always happens.

I’ve been wanting to travel for a while now but can’t seem to tear myself from work. A great part of one’s time on earth is spent in trying to eke a living. It is a slow, gradual process and you don’t even realize when time flies by. And we continue to work. Oscar Wilde, that brilliant Irish boy, perhaps got it right. He says work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do.

It is the onset of winters and I am not experiencing the writer’s block. Perhaps I don’t seem to even-steven it. Stuff happens. I’ll be back!

Sameer

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Bullets at the Ball


It has been a week of profound agony. All of us feel violated. It appears as if something deep within has suddenly snapped. That ten men armed with rage and AK-56 guns came stealthily in the dark of the night in dirty rubber boats and highjacked the collective conscience of a billion people looks astonishing. Many things changed on that fateful starry night. Not only did the bullets fly thick and fast in the ball room at Taj, cutting the guests to an instant death, massive holes were made in many hearts.

A full one week after the Bombay [I prefer Bombay to Mumbai] mayhem, a startled citizenry is still numb. There is fear and anger at what has happened. Last evening at a prayer meeting for the much-loved Sabina I looked on helplessly as the renowned columnist Baachi Karkaria broke down. She said she felt so guilty to have invited Sabina to her son’s wedding to Bombay. Perhaps we are all guilty at some level, I wanted to assure the elegant Baachi. I couldn’t. She was inconsolable. Just in front of me Ustad Amjad Ali Khan wept slowly. At the illustrious Lady Sri Ram College, today, each eye was tenderly moist. Is it a catharsis for losing our innocence, I can't say?

The media is full of horror tales. I’ve stopped reading the blood-cuddling accounts. It makes me go queasy in the stomach. I don’t understand the vanity of it all. What justifies the bloodshed? The answers, I know, aren’t easy to come by. The static is uneasy.

The lone idiot our notoriously ill-equipped cops managed to lay hands on has apparently blurted out that all nautical routes lead to our neighbor’s shores. I give the civil society in that poor country the benefit of doubt. They must be equally appalled as we are. However, as we know well, and others around the world may confirm, the sinister cabal, which plots and schemes this ugly terror, is mostly based out of Pakistan’s badlands. It is time the network is smashed. Who does it, can be debated.

Back home we need to fix our old hatchways.

Terrorists are cold, cruel and calculated. They kill at will. They foist their hate colored flags on our bodies. We can’t afford to stay indifferent. We can't afford to allow them to cut us to death while we are eating in a restaurant or drinking in a café or shopping at a mall. We can’t afford to let them snatch away our lifelong friends from us. We cannot afford to allow our cherished freedom to be held ransom to some twisted, idiotic ideology. We can’t afford to fear a psychotic who kills a sick woman, sleeping in her bed, to prove that he is a man. Or a martyr.

In grief
And memoriam

To humanity
And goodness
And to all those innocents whose lives were mercilessly snuffed out during those dreary days of Nov 26, 27 and 28.

Sameer

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Our soup will never be the same again

[Sabina in happier days; California]

Fight till the last gasp
~ William Shakespeare
English Dramatist, Playwright and Poet


I’ve never seen someone carrying pearls as gracefully as Sabina Saikia Sehgal. I first met her a couple of years back at a party the Saikia’s hosted at their beautiful Defence colony villa. You couldn’t afford to ignore her in any setting. Sabina wore huge glasses and a huge pearl. I soon realized that beneath that overweening visage, there was a beautiful human being. She was exceedingly warm, cordial and she laughed out loud. I ate prawns that she had made and it was the best shrimp I’ve ever had.

I met her on many occasions that I went to see my editor at the Saikia‘s. Each time she would floor me with her generosity. Sabina was pretenseless and I really admired her for that. I think the geniality, grace and glow came only naturally. I was surprised to learn that she read my blogs: ‘I liked the blog post you wrote for your mom,’ she told me. I never hoped I’d some day have to write an obit for such a brilliant journalist.

I’ve seen a very few people so full of life. A globe-trotting writer, food critic and consulting editor of the Times of India were just one shade to her. She also was a wonderful mother to her two kids and a loving wife to Santanu, her journalist-turned-dot com entrepreneur hubby. Sabina’s friends would vouch for her amity. As a pro she had such a fierce reputation of being India’s best -- and ruthless -- food writer that restaurateurs would fear her weekly column. Yet, in private, she was so kind.

I shudder to think how cowardly it must have been to shoot her?
Did she laugh one last time? Her loud guffaws would often draw people to her. No wonder her funeral saw an ensemble of the crème de la crème of the capital. I had the Delhi chief minister standing to my left and fashion designer Rohit Bal to my right. Complete strangers sobbed as her pyre was lit. I’d tears in my eye.

It feels so sad to lose her. Newspapers are replete with tributes. I’m being told that she was one of the finest food connoisseurs in the country. I’m sure she will raid heaven's kitchen and savor its famed manna and nectar. And then rate it. Without fear.

Sabina will be dearly missed.

Sabina Saikia Sehgal
[1961-2008]
Godspeed
[Sabina was killed in the terrorist attack at Bombay’s Taj Mahal hotel]

Sameer

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kashmir Votes

Kashmir is in a wintry squeeze. There are two major camps in this conflict-ridden state. The mainstream and the separatists. While those owing their allegiance to the former make their living by faking their loyalty to New Delhi, the latter simply thrive on dissent. There are lots of players in both camps but no good leaders. And Kashmir oscillates between the two extremes. No one advocates or cares for the middle path.

The separatists are riddled with factions. They dislike each other guts but publicly speak in the same secessionist overtones. The top guys wear expensive Kara-Kul caps. The lowly sidekicks settle with well-tailored achkans [flowing gowns]. These guys have interceders to issue boycotts and blacklists. The middle-men are called coordination committee. These are the same bunch of gentlemen who called the immensely popular chalo’s [Lets go] marches some months back.

The mainstream is thoroughly corrupt. They drive around in beacon fitted cars at the expense of state. They cavort in state guest houses. They have hollow slogans, which no one takes seriously. Worse still the politicians know that they are reviled. Yet they carry on with their business. Given a truly independent election [may be monitored by the UN] not one of them will win a seat in the assembly. Since that may never happen, the mainstream continues to run the show.

The election commission of India is conducting elections in Kashmir. Half a million troopers are on vigil. There is an election boycott call from the coordination committee. The weather is inclement. The million strong marches are a recent memory. Yet people came out to vote. I don’t believe in anything that the state media says but I trust independent news sources. BBC reported a decent voter turn out in Phase-I. Now that is very interesting.

Part of it could be plain cajoling and harassment by the army. 'We gonna come back to check who has got an inked-finger'. Elections in Kashmir have never been transparent in the real sense and the election commission of India knows that fully well. They have been perhaps asked by the intelligence agencies to make an exception for Kashmir. Matter of sovereignty, some may argue. Yet, it appears that this time people have actually exercised their franchise, in large parts, out of their will. What about those marches? Martyrs?

I guess it is about three things. One: People want a basic decent life -- good roads, good education, better jobs and they know an elected, political government is better equipped to do that. No governor speaks Kashmiri and Kashmiri's have trouble explaining themselves in Hindi. Two: People in the countryside appear less likely to take the separatists seriously. The boycott call apparently has been ignored, at least in rural Kashmir. Three: While the Azadi sentiment lives on, and is not expected to die anytime soon, a disenchantment syndrome is taking root. The shelf life of any dissent is short.

For the while it looks like advantage mainstream. We are headed for a civilian rule and out of the three: Farooq – a notoriously colorful doctor, Mufti – of red wine fame and Azad – a disconnected congressman, the doctor may walk away with the crown. But let’s not jump the gun here. Remember Kashmir has always been bit of a riddle.

We shall have to wait till it snows again!

Sameer

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Weekend Snapshots


[US Humvees at sundown in Basra, Iraq:
Let's hope we see a sundown of US occupation too]


[Mother and daughter walk in snow, Srinagar:
Gaad, Isn't that beautiful]

Friday, November 14, 2008

Snow

Perhaps the only two things I truly miss about Kashmir are its snow-capped mountains and the fluffy-icy-powdery snow. Someone just called to tell me that it is snowing back home. The sight is awe-inspiring. Kashmir, in fact, is one of the few places in India where it actually snows! Imagine, for a heartbeat's span: You are cut off from rest of the world. As it continues to snow, you stay confined indoors. It is a very cozy, out-of-this-world, snuggled down, unwinding feeling. Nothing -- at all -- beats it!

There is no electricity. Consequently no TV. No games. No soaps. No inverters. No lamps and tube lights. You lit thy candles. Fusty style. You re-live the way of your ancestors. It puts to shame all the candle-lite dinners in swanky New Delhi lounges. There is a certain magical ring to it. Like an old harried painter appearing out of the woods and quietly sketching frenetic white silhouettes upon window sills and in the backyard and on the turnpikes. No potholes are visible in the snow. There are no drains. No runnels. Just running miles of endless, clean snow. Snow that came over night. God has stockpiles of it, I often doodle.

Snow packs up in lawns. It falls on old fences and the light less lamp posts. Upon little eggs in the eagle’s high eyrie, while the birdlings cheep happily. Snow makes an almost medieval swirling descent. The flakes fall headlong on still waters of the distant pond, kissing her stillness. It snows on locked temples and countless sand bunkers. In every orchard and onto each slope. Snow falls on fresh graves. On abandoned army helmets upon the lonely hillside. In wetlands. Old chimneys. It falls on the rooftops and topless rivers. God's confetti.


There is stuff that dollars can't buy: Like snow clinging to your nose. To your back. The snow-man with bits of charcoal for eyes. The snow-ball fight. Throwing small orbs of snow at each other. The fun of it. The rush. The pink of cheeks. Rouge of palms. And the quite wintry nights. The eerie silences. The snow-globs coming dancing down from the sky, in hushed whispers. On deer-backs. Upon trees. On defunct electric lines. In terraces. Upon doggy-snouts. Caressing the ladyfinger like icicles. On parched humans. Never failing them.

Warm hamams, warmed still by thick logs of wood. Harisa simmering. Envy the old world charm.

God, I love snow. I miss Kashmir.

Sameer

From the archives

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Brave

A contemporary American writer calls storytelling an ancient and honorable act. There are times when I have this itch to tell a tale.
I don't know where it comes from but I love the kick.
The creative bones in me rattle as I cruise imaginary territories.
I enjoy the trek.

I've just managed to put my second short story up. It is called 'Brave'. You can check it at
http://www.kashmiryat.wordpress.com/

Sameer

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Audacity of Hope

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King, Jr

[I’ve a dream speech on August 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement]


King must be turning in his grave in Fulton county. For this truly is a defining moment in America’s history. Forty years after King was shot dead, a fellow black has just managed to do the impossible. Moments ago I heard the victory speech. It was a change everyone yearned for. After all the theatrics, the show-off and endless hate campaigns -- the apogee turned out to be sweet. Subjected to years of exclusion and faced with the worst form of racial divide, for the black community, as for the ordinary American, this is the day of deliverance.

America has finally turned the page. On Nov 4, 2008 -- a black man, with an un-American surname, a Muslim middle-name and zero political pedigree got elected to the most powerful position in the world. Obama triumphed. In his triumph, hope shone bright -- again -- in the USA. Rev Jesse Jackson, another of those tireless civil rights giants, standing in Grant Park in downtown Chicago, wept slowly as Barack thanked people. Many more sobbed in joy. It was, perhaps, a catharsis America badly needed. After years of blood-letting, terror mongering, hate politics and a notoriously incompetent president, here was a breather at last. In a greatly inter-connected world, it means a lot for all of us. My eyes went tenderly moist.

Barack beat all odds to become the 44th president of the US of A. He went from state to state, coast to coast, turf upon turf, taking on the extremely well-entrenched, politically experienced McCain. And it was not easy. During the tortuous and often grueling election campaign he continually displayed remarkable level-headedness. Relentlessly under fire, Obama continued to inspire hope and audacity. Dislodging the Washington DC cabal was never going to be a cake walk. There were ugly incidents and shrill media campaigns but ultimately the raw power of people, the youth and those on the margins prevailed. All lobbyists of the world couldn’t stop the tide, as real America spoke up. And loud.



Obama’s magic lay in his charisma. His appeal cut across the board – white and black, East to West Coast, students and workers and more importantly -- the youth. People absolutely loved his policies. His promises. His energy. The glint in his eye and the frankness in his voice struck an immediate, intimate chord. He made the good old decent political debates -- the fulcrum of any civilized society -- fashionable again. Armed with a degree from Harvard and record of social activism, Barack promised change. His ideas impressed. He was someone uncontaminated by DC. And he looked the correct answer to everything wrong about Bush and his mad-men.

Who would have thought that the son of a Kenyan black man would one day be the most powerful person on earth. America made it possible. The threshold was crossed by epic voter turnout across the country. It was a clean sweep -- and the choice was clear: Obama.

Color, finally gave way to character. This is indeed the heralding of a new dawn. Time to relegate a vicious legacy to the dustbin of history has come. King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and James Weldon Johnson must raise a quiet toast in the sky.

True -- it can happen in America alone. The country continues to instill hope. It proved that tonight.

Sameer


[Suhail, my buddy, an Obama supporter chills out on the victory night in Harlem, NYC]


[My American friends, capture the joy of Obama victory, at midnight, New York]


[The victory speech]

Friday, October 31, 2008

Lest we forget

A hugely popular watch online shows the backward Bush timer.
As I post George Bush Jr has about 80 days and 16 hours left in office before he finally exits as one of the worst-ever presidents of the United States, and consequently the free world. History -- which Arundhati Roy calls an old house at night -- is not going to be fair on the Texas cowboy whose IQ is stuck somewhere around 30.
[I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family. Bush — Greater Nashua, N.H., Jan. 27, 2000]. Smart.

Bush Jr is going to go down in text books as someone who locked up people in America's dirty dens, in foreign lands, without an ort of guilt. Post-presidency the idiot may relax in his ranch and chomp on his daily quota of pretzels, without ever realizing how his irrational actions forever changed the lives of completely innocent people -- for absolutely no sin of theirs.

Here's an excerpt from the blog archives.

An innocent man writes in the high security Guantanamo bay, a place rightly called the 'Gulag' of our times by Amnesty International.
This clearly moved me to tears:

The...Ramadan was absolutely unique. It was probably one of the best ones that I have ever spent in my life. Despite the extreme circumstances, the cheerfulness and spirit of everybody was unforgettable. The highlight was the congregational prayer, particularly Taraweeh, the final evening prayer, exclusive to Ramadan. The usual noises of talking and shouting reverberating across the blocks was replaced by a solitary voice, melodically reciting verses of the Qur'an, which brought tears to my eyes. Who knows what those hundreds of others were feeling, remembering, contemplating, at the same time as me? But I knew one thing: everyone there had a reason to weep. And the sadness was almost sweet.

After a tough legal fight by the civil liberties guys and human rights agencies, the US Supreme Court allowed those imprisoned at Guantanamo bay to challenge their confinement. In what many experts saw as a major rebuke to the Bush administration, came as a faint glimmer of hope to those languishing in Camp Delta.

Scot McClellan, Bush's press advisor -- and White House spokesman -- for a long time wrote a compelling book earlier this year. He calls his former boss misguided. Thanks Scot, didn't we know that!

Sameer

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When morals, men and minds go to dogs

Corruption really exists in this world. It is like lava from an evil volcano which flows into the most unlikeliest of sluices. I am sure the epicenter is somewhere in Kashmir. The civil secretariat -- to be more precise. Within the concrete walls of the tallest structure in Kashmir, everyone has scruples of a pygmy. From top down they are corrupt upto their necks. The babus and their underlings. The typists and the lowly peons. Only God knows how much money is taken under the cedar tables, in between the folders of cheap file covers and under the official stationery of J and K state government.

I saw a couple of my friends being asked to pay up or wait for ever -- for a routine -- and an otherwise simple errand. They eventually paid up. “Why, I asked them, do you have to grease their fat, grimy, religious palms?” This is a corrupt island, Sam, and everyone is expected to be complicit here and if you dare to think otherwise, they simply push you into the sea, I was coldly told. The sea, may I add, is deep and dark and no one ever emerges from it.
There are no big fish to carry you on the back either. The age of innocence and lore is bygone. Welcome to the corrupt island.




Three things are very evident in Kashmir. Bad roads, religious sermons and corrupt men. I don’t know if there is any connection between the three but I am sure that the roads have been planned pre-1947 and have not changed since. The tribal raiders [who attacked Kashmir, along with Pak army regulars in October 1947] took the same roads. They are narrow, pot-holed [big enough to keep an MLA in each one of them] and jut out as perpetual eye sores.
The highways are no better. There are countless pockmarks. You can’t enjoy the scenery when every bone in you rattles by every pebble that jolts the wagon to the last frigging bolt. And I am not exaggerating. You can really keep an MLA in each one of those puddles and let them go only after they tell you the correct spelling of macadamization [Named after John Loudon McAdam, who pioneered the process of road macadamization].



Of course the Jazbe-junoon [Frenzy/nuttiness for freedom/whatever] is very alive. A clarion call from coordination committee [a gaggle of separatists, shopkeepers, advocates and the like] is good enough to get everyone rushing from behind their cedar tables in offices and shops onto the pot-holed roads. And there are slogans for Azadi [Freedom]. ’Ban-Ki-Moon visit Kashmir’…read a placard. I've studied bits of political realism. I know, for a fact, that the south Korean diplomat [and the UN boss] will never come to the valley. The good boy was put in the hot seat by Washington DC and London. Both 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing street won’t approve of Moon going on a Kashmir trip. For the while Kashmir has to suffice with the earth’s natural satellite and its reflection in the dirty water that collects in the big puddles on her many roads. Sad but realism, they call it.

I saw cops and armed troopers chasing stone throwing kids on the last Friday of my Kashmir holiday. Friday is a tough day for the police. They brace for the day in advance and oil their batons and get ready for battles that usually start just after the afternoon prayers. The kids [with the help of some adults] know the escape routes well and have their ammunition stocks [medium to small stones, bricks and slippers in jute bags] ready. One group carries these bags and positions itself at vantage points in the town. Another band, good at ‘kush’ [no transliteration: the closest would be a mix of sharp shooting and hightailing] fights the battle of wits. The teen-age crowd throws stones and used slippers at the cops and holler non-stop insults, interspersed with Azadi, Azadi. The police responds by lobbing tear-gas shells and an occasional bullet.

Two children [aged 14, 15] jumped into the Jhelum when cops tried to intercept them from both ends of the Sopore bridge. Luckily both survived and were quickly arrested. I saw a kid [aged 11] being dragged by two troopers. I reckon he was from the stone-throwing gang and couldn’t get away in time. I am sure they released him later and he lived on to fight another day. I am not too sure if he will ever learn to be cultured like the kids of the more fortunate.



Tales like these play out in Kashmir all the time. The less priveledged often take bullets for the elusive Azadi, in which [if it is ever granted] they will have no stake. The real stake-holders sit in drawing rooms, exchanging small-talk. The upscale crowd I know have stylish high-end phones that just don’t stop to trill. We talk about global financial instruments and they tell me if their investments are safe. They believe that Sarah Palin is hot and Zardari sucks. Occasionally they comment on the stone-throwing army. Intifada, I must admit, one fellow added, as he munched on roasted cashews. Yeah. They shot a kid in the right leg, last night, someone observed. The poor kid still had a rock in his left hand. By the way, Sameer, have you heard "You're Gonna Go Far, Kid" by The Offspring.
They rock, man.

Sameer

Monday, October 20, 2008

The hills are singing

[Text and images by Sameer]

Kingfisher is India’s most flamboyant airlines. Vijay Maliya, the Kingfisher boss is somewhat like the Virgin boss Richard Branson. Both are colorful, extravagant and have a huge sense of splash. Oflate I’ve started traveling business class in Kingfisher. Not because I feel like to splurge but owing to some random-lucky-selection. Three times -- out of the three times -- that I flew by Maliya’s red bird in recent months, my economy class ticket has been upgraded to business. Frankly I am liking all the pampering but I still fail to understand the largess.

Relaxing on a business class king-size seat in the kingfisher’s belly, reading Aravind Adiga’s ‘White Tiger’ [The Booker boy’s book] and taking on small sips of Diet Coke, I looked out on the majestic Hindukush mountain chain, blanketing Kashmir from rest of the world. Insulating and isolating it. Every time I fly to Kashmir the sight of these lofty peaks makes something shift in me. I feel my nostalgia lifting slowly. The feeling is gemütlich. That is German for describing a blend of homeliness, coziness and comfort.



[ Upgrading the sole airport at Srinagar]

Construction is going on full throttle at the Srinagar airport, much like the Delhi airport. America may be facing financial meltdown, which the pundits say, may now well limp into the next year, but India has no dearth of development funds. Work -- to make India look like a step-brother of China, by 2010 -- is continuing like crazy. A cold but gentle breeze was blowing in Srinagar. The runway was, like always mobbed by security chaps -- Kashmiri and non-Kashmiri [easily identified by the color of their cheeks]. Everyone wore woolens. An hour before -- at New Delhi, it was humid as hell’s fifth level. No wonder, I doodled in my head, they so love the valley.

But the valley is not about fabulous climate and hissing hills. A few kilometers in Suhail’s zippy i-10, I experienced Kashmir’s naked as a jaybird hostility. Boys, as young as 16 were playing ding dong battles with the police, who chased them with bamboo sticks. Occasionally the cops fired tear gas canisters at the protestors. I later realized it was a Friday afternoon and such stone-pelting is part of an organized protest nowadays. A few kilometers ahead, in Lal Chowk [Red square -- Srinagar’s CP], a few hundred lawyers marched, raising slogans. ‘What’s this for?’ I asked Suhail. ‘Keeps happening all the time,’ came a prompt reply. Whatever it is -- frenzy, Azadi, nuttiness -- is not over yet.

[Lawyers protest in Lal Chowk]

There are a myriad vested interests operating in this small dell at any given point in time. Some trade in gold, others in land and yet others in Azadi. Two types of people exist. One, who are ever-willing to be exploited and consequently the first ones to fall to a stray bullet -- in a procession -- by a trigger-happy cop. The second types lead. They plan and organize the chaos and become richer by the day. They drink coffee in plush café’s and hold press conferences by pool-side in upscale hotels. Pity, they are ever willing to exploit and consequently fear no cop. Infact the cops protect them.

Talking of coffee, Suhail and me managed to drive past the hollering advocates, stone pelting teens [most of whom, I am told belong to the exploited class] into the confines of the Broadway café’ -- nonchalantly -- called Coffea Arabica [Coffee of Ethiopia and Yemen, less on caffeine]. NDTV’s local bearded correspondent was readying himself by the hotel porch for his two bytes in his punch-drunk accent. The coffee was well-blended but they give no spoons to stir the sugar [sugar-free in my case]. Instead you blend it with ice-cream sticks. The ambience is intimate and frequented by the well to do kinds. On my way out, I was struck by the instruction card on the pool. No lifeguards. Who needs a lifeguard, I worked a silly smile, when life’s so darn cheap, in Kashmir.

[Coffea Arabica -- like any 'cool' cafe in Delhi]

[They use a lot of wood in Kashmir, Coffea Arabica]

[Instruction board -- No life Guards. Thanks]

[Pool side: Fav venue for press conferences]


[Coming up: On screwing all spellings, corrupt old men and the oddity - that is Kashmir]

Sameer

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Love thy neighbor

Allow me to explain my indolence. I have been suffused with loads of work and whatever remained of my time -- went to the understanding of ‘History of God’ by Karen Armstrong. I've read Armstrong previously and I think -- in this case -- she has a beautiful and enlightened comprehension of both -- the concept and the history of God. I like her arguments, which kept me engrossed in all my unslept hours during this past week. Consequently I continued to remain in a state of bloglessness. [Phew: What an excuse!]

For quite some time now I have been wanting to blog on an insecurity that seems to have crept overnight in our lives like an untamed creeper. This is about the Muslim vulnerability after the recent bombs in Delhi. They are feeling victimised and estranged. Although not very visible, the funk is subtle and prevalent. I can gather the sentiment from the pamphlets that have suddenly appeared in the upscale Muslim neighborhood I live in. The Jamia Milia Islamiya has also put up banners extolling its secular credentials. Elsewhere there are hushed whispers. There is a talk of victimization and identity. The PM spoke about it the other day. The mass media and cheap bollywood fare is adding to this sensation.

It appears funny though. How could a spate of bombs -- even if planted by a handful of misguided Muslim men -- shatter the confidence of an entire community. Are India's societal bonds so weak? The Muslims, perhaps, think about the Sikh predicament in 1984, following the killing of Mrs. Gandhi. She was gunned down, as is widely known, by her Sikh body guards but why did 2,800 Sikhs have to die for the dastardly act of a handful of their co-religionists. That was about 24 years back, you try to assuage. Gujarat was recent, the Muslim mindset appears to say. In both cases, Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 -- the police sided with the goons.

Perhaps we are not a civilized society after all? And all this cloying talk of secularism and plurality goes for a toss, with the hiss of a tyre blast. I flunk to understand: Is this a lack of civility and values [the muddle-heads are the first ones to resort to violence] or a problem with our collective perception [most of the middle class feeds off the idiot box and the crassness emanating from it]. Or some concoction, with a dash of our religious prejudices. Is this a nation of morons?

I've never felt alienated in any way -- during all my years in Delhi -- but it would be unfair to assume that everything is hunky-dory. There is a shift taking place, somewhere deep, very subtly, like the crack of ice in early spring. One can notice it in the number of suspicious glances drawn by the mere sight of a skullcap in a restaurant. The mention of a Muslim first name is enough to make the other person look at you -- over again, may be with a mix of horror and unease. Is this the end of all commonality?

Politics in India is shallow business. The right-wing crap generates a lot of excitement amongst the masses. Electronic media is totally gross. Mutual suspicion is growing. Tempers are frayed. It just needs a tinder. Another blast, may be, before we openly bay for each others blood.

The colorful, multi-thread fabric of India is decaying.

Sameer

Sunday, September 28, 2008

An evening with the inimitable Cat



Yusuf Islam -- formerly Cat Stevens -- king of pop in the 1970's plays out live on BBC4. A soulful, exhilirating and touching rendition. Encore!

More about Cat on Blog archive:
http://www.sameerbhat.blogspot.com/2005/04/yousef-islam.html
[Copy the url and paste it in a new tab]

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Amusing Kashmir

Kashmir never fails to amuse me. It is a pixilated piece of paradise.
I was there last month and couldn't help pick some of the oddity out. It appeared peculiar -- and weird -- amidst frenetic slogans, calling for freedom [Azadi]. The phenomenon seems to have cropped up during the last few years and it has become so routine now that the locals either don't mind it or have become too familiar with the sheer absurdity of it.

Lights on syndrome: Call it an original Kashmiri invention or a local compulsion. Whenever a groom goes to collect his bride these days in Kashmir, all cars in the wedding party put their parking lights on. That’s when they are driving! It goes like a rule. An unwritten one. ‘Helps identify the wedding party cars’, goes a standard explanation. It is fun, goes another one. Not to be left behind, the army too has joined the silly party. There is an exception though. The military trucks keep the Head-lights on -- in broad day light!
Now no one really knows why?

We don't care two hoots: There is pan-Islamism in air. We know that such winds are currently blowing in many Muslim lands but nowhere in the world will billboard size posters of polemical Islamists be put up so non-chalantly. I saw a life-size portrait of Hassan Nasrallah -- chief of Hezbollah [a much feared chap in the western capitals] -- firmly pinned to a canopy of green trees near a Shiite village on the national highway, leading to Baramulla. It looked like a permanent feature to me. One thing to like a much controversial resistance leader and another thing to eulogize him!

I want my own concrete: They all want their own slice of concrete in Kashmir. A separate home, complete with a lawn, a red roof [a fast picking phenomenon] and a brick fence. And everywhere you look around in the urban and not-too-urban areas, construction is going on in full swing. Houses are coming up at an amazing rate. As a result agricultural land is fast shrinking. It will soon resemble a concrete jungle. I was recently reading that Kashmir cannot produce enough food to feed itself now. No wonder! They all want exclusive homes. Damn the food and fields.

Meat till I drop: A wedding in Kashmir is nothing but food. Organizers run helter skelter to ensure that there is no stone left unturned for a grand feast. People just wait to eat. There is not much entertainment except for some moments when you briefly catch up with an old friend or an acquaintance. A troupe of wazas [chefs] usually does the cooking in the backyard, which becomes the ground zero of the wedding. Everyone pays at least one visit to see the open-air experimentation with mutton. Then a food extravaganza begins. It never ends.

We have a point: Creativity is at a huge premium in Kashmir. Most business establishments have names that border on funny to comical. One recurring note is ’point’. Almost every fifth or sixth shop is some point. It could be cool point, in case of a soft-drink store or an ice-point, in case of a ice-cream corner. There is a strange affinity with these points. There are print-points, pool-points, fitting-points and the list goes on.

Our national carriage: I have rarely seen a dumper outside Kashmir. I don’t know why TATA makes these monsters and dumps them in Kashmir. The natives call them tippers, which is not an incorrect usage. It is slightly archaic. And dumpers are eye-sores. Usually a garish orange or ugly maroon, the dumper drivers drive as if they are on perpetual dope. Most road accidents are caused by these vehicles, which needlessly outnumber other modes of material transportation in Kashmir. I so hate them.

Living away from Kashmir has its own perks. One is able to go back in a while and look at all the change and metamorphosis that the place undergoes. Some of which is for good and some -- not surprisingly -- plain kooky.

Kashmir, with all its oddity, is fascinating. May be because it is home.

Sameer

Monday, September 15, 2008

City city, bang bang


Saturday, Sep 13 five bombs went off in quick succession in Delhi – India’s quintessential capital. It was a coordinated mayhem and immediately left a wake of destruction. The blasts shattered the vibrancy of a city – known for its panache. The famous hustle halted briefly as people bled on her many avenues. Terrorists who carried out the attack had chosen the venues chillingly well: Upscale markets, peak-hour metro station, lawns at the weekend India gate. The intent was clear and deadly: Maximum damage to a completely innocent bunch of people, who have nothing to do with either hate-politics or whatever shit ideology these stupid guys harbor.

This is anarchy. Terror has come to haunt us in a city – which is not only the political and administrative capital of India but also a city chock-a-block with history and heritage. I thought it won’t happen here. Not in Delhi. I thought the city was always in a state of high surveillance. One could have been forgiven to believe that Delhi was a boisterous and chirpy town and nothing dreary will ever pass by it. Alas we were to be proven wrong. Some dirt-bags had other sinister plans. They attempted to blow up the city – along with the pluristic values, the joy, the commotion that we take so forgranted in everyday life. Need I add, they failed miserably.

I have been living in this metropolis and the city seems to have grown on me. It is huge and haphazard – and humid these days -- but it allows you a freedom that is so beautiful. It emancipates you and liberates you from wherever you come from. Like all great cities of the world it opens its heart to you and makes you its very own. Its airs still carry the scent of a million dead poets. Delhi is the very idea of diversity and survival. The indomitable spirit of the city is, simply put, overwhelming.

I was happy to read that Delhi Metro resumed services soon after the blasts happened and people came back to the markets that were bombed the previous evening. Complete strangers ferried the wounded to hospitals. A concert was called off and the audience rushed to donate blood. The resilience was touching, so was the spirit of the city of Djinns.

I hope the cruelty that was inflicted on this city is defeated by its people.

I want the poetry back in her airs. And pronto

Sameer

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Adieu Pervez

This past August, things got so out of hand in Kashmir that one watershed event went almost unnoticed. Musharraf exited as Pakistan’s most controversial, candid and colorful president ever. I don’t wish to write a political elegiac for him but I’ve no qualms in saying -- that although not without his own set of flaws -- Musharraf was an out-right liberal who not only popularized out-of-the-box political thinking but turned out to be more democratic than most of Pakistan’s present crop of leaders.


It is no secret that Mush took power in a coup and some of his policies -- like exiling the tough-nut Punjabi Nawaz or taking on the tribal chief justice Iftikar --were blatantly autocratic. However Musharraf lorded over a nation of 170 million believers in a post 9/11 world with such prudence that it won’t be wrong to say that he dragged Pakistan back from the brink of militant frenzy. Mush paved the way for the entry of private media in Pakistan. From one state run TV station, when he took power, Pakistan now has 50 independent media houses. Ironically all of them now bad-mouth the man, who gave them the medium to speak.

Pervez made genuine peace moves with India like no Pakistani politician. He came to Agra and wooed the Indian media. Mush, much to the chagrin of the hard-line elements both in Pakistan and Kashmir, proposed to deliberate on the Kashmir issue with a new mind-set. Borders with India saw a never before lull as skirmishes fell to a naught. He not only ensured but sincerely adhered to a cease-fire with India. Since the new government has come into being this year, Pakistan has returned to its old naughty ways, and if we go by recent news, the return of democracy in that country has seen a return of cross-border firing and major disturbance in Kashmir.


Mush banded with the US in the war on terror. Though a loaded political term, given the terror Americans export to other parts of the world, Mush’s war on the extreme elements in his country did keep them on a tight leash. The support to US brought him doles of aid and much needed assistance for infrastructure projects in Pakistan. He threw the fundamentalists out of Islamabad’s Red mosque and tried to police the tribal bad-lands, though without much success. This made him many enemies, who attacked with him an increased ferocity each time. Mush survived every attempt like the proverbial cat of nine lives. The half-salutes and chutpah almost never stopped.

The new-found confidence of the Pakistani middle-class can safely be alluded to Musharraf’s bold liberal economic policies. Together with his technocrat prime minister Shaukat Aziz, he led the average Pakistani to newer pastures. The country’s economy grew by a record 7%. Foreign investment grew by leaps. Pity, no one remembers Mush for the gratuity. Pakistan very much remains a land of vendetta where you are often remembered for your trivial mistakes and not for the larger good. Mush is its latest victim.


His downfall began the day Benazir was killed on his watch. Mush should have been more watchful but fate is an inscrutable bird. Benazir was a huge huge leader. I knew, as I posted shortly thereafter, that Musharraf’s days are numbered. He tried to play his cards safe but ultimately they brought him down along with his fearless, stylish, winsome ways.

Now we wait for Benazir’s crooked husband to be crowned the new king. He is an old corrupt playboy. Pakistani ruling class is, notoriously, showy and shallow. Nawaz is no different. Already there are fissures in the coalition government. Suicide bombings continue. Islamists are grinning. The Americans are keeping up the pressure. The PM’s car was fired at yesterday. Anarchy reigns. Pakistan style!

Musharraf, my fave soldier, will know.

Sameer

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Shame

After days of dithering over how to go about Kashmir and apparently not finding a way out, New Delhi finally found the talisman. Some smart ass in the South Block probably suggested a punitive crackdown to deal with the situation. So three days ago, India flexed its military muscle in Kashmir. Everthing since has been gasping for some air.

I met Arundhati Roy today. She agrees it is the cruelest curfew ever in the chequered history of the valley. Ms Roy retains a beautiful sense of satire. She said, “You know, I was in Kashmir recently and I witnessed the million strong marches. The most striking thing about them was that they were all very peaceful”. This curfew is the government’s way of telling the people that we would tolerate no non-violence, she said with a chuckle. I couldn’t agree more.

The curfew has been a total clamp-down. The security agencies were perhaps given a clear brief. Not a soul should exit their homes. Not a single silly slogan must echo. It matters not that someone could be sick and would want immediate medical attention or someone may need to travel urgently. There are no concessions. It was like the big brother finally coming down heavily on its small pestering cousins. And the para-military forces acted exactly as was expected of them, like mechanical creatures, completely insensitive to human plight.

I cringe with dejection to think of this hobgoblin. One of my friends was supposed to fly to the middle-east where he works as a surgeon. He had a connecting flight to catch from Delhi. Stuck in curfew in Kashmir, he tried arguing with the troopers manning the curfew-colored roads. All in vain. He missed the flight and his schedule went haywire. This is nothing. I read in news-papers today that even emergency services were disallowed. As a result ambulances couldn’t ply. A girl, from south Kashmir, withering with stomach ache, died in the ambulance while her aged father trying to convince the mechanical creatures. Again in vain.

The curfew is so cruel that it looks like a revenge exercise. A collective punishment is being meted out to people for daring to look at the state in the eye. I see no other reason why local media must be gagged. Why national/international media should be barred from reporting. Why doctors who show their curfew passes are asked to back-off and return home. On the humanitarian side, bodies of people who have died in hospitals over the past three days -- due to natural causes -- are lying in morgues for the want of transportation. No ambulance driver wants to risk his life. There are reports that water tankers couldn’t reach orphanages. This is a dire and deliberate agony.

There are times in history when states act nasty. A very few states treat people -- they never tire to call their own -- in such high-handed fashion. I asked Arundhati -- one of the best living writers of English -- about her article, espousing Azadi for Kashmir. She was candid in her response. “India is giving the same arguments that the British once gave us -- That the natives are not yet ready. We shall send the Simon commission.” New Delhi, Ms Roy added, continues to live behind glass walls. I throw these stones at the wall so that it develops some cracks and they wake up to realize that there is a problem in Kashmir.


One can immediately draw parallels between Arundhati and that great Frenchman Jean Paul Sartre --who once famously refused the Nobel prize. Sartre would exactly poke the administration of the legendary French President Charles de Gaulle over French atrocities in Colonial Algeria. Intellectuals and writers, wherever they are, always speak up the gospel truth.

Dissent and debate is part of any democracy. While India's self-righteous leaders never fail to highlight our democratic credentials, they remain ignorantly indifferent to the misery of more than six million people, who have been cooped inside one of the world's biggest and the most beautiful prisons. The state calls its own violence law, but that of the individual crime, Max Stirner the German philosopher once averred.

The Kashmir problem shall remain.

Sameer.

Monday, August 25, 2008

What Frenzy is this?

Freedom is never free
~An old European maxim

Kashmir is irate like never before. A new-found furor floats around. Fresh slogans -- ingenious and irascible -- have been coined. They call their processions, freedom marches. A million people converge at the slightest notice. These marches have now been successfully repeated as many as four times in the last one fortnight. The youth fight the state in spirited battles -- with whatever is available to them: half-bricks, petite stones or slippers. Even the audacity is new. People stand still like frozen statutes when fired upon. Bullets have failed to cut the exuberance. I can’t make out, in all honestly, what is this frenzy! They call it the yearning for Azadi [Freedom].

Arundhati Roy -- one of my fave authors -- in a brilliant article calls the latest uprising Kashmir’s epiphany. I don’t think people outside Kashmir may ever understand it. The land row [which fuelled the present situation] has been forgotten and relegated to the back-burner amidst slogans for Azadi. Why was a mountain made out of a molehill, my journalist friends keep asking me in Delhi. Why should Kashmiris object to a mere chunk of land been given to the shrine board? When it is terra Kashmir, I try to vainly argue, meanings often go beyond the obvious. It is complex and confounded.

What Kashmiris are trying to demonstrate at this point in time has gone beyond the 40 hectares of land. The masses are desperately trying to hang onto the faint glimmer of hope that the land controversy has thrown to them and in doing so they are demonstrating a very unusual, raw power, which is both dangerous and defiant. Politically very well versed -- unlike many average Indian’s -- Kashmiris understand that in a world of 24 X 7 media attention, their old pent up anguish and emotions -- will not go unnoticed. If India is disturbed, it clearly has a huge reason to be.

Going back to the land row, Kashmir is anything but communal. For once Kashmiris resisted the land transfer because it would have diluted the special status of the state that the constitution of India confers to it. The land was being given/transferred/leased out/ordered/whatever to an autonomous body, which was not Kashmiri. The yatra, Kashmiris opined, could very well be managed by the state government and people, as has always been the norm. Handing over the land to a non-state entity compromises our position, they maintained. I guess there is nothing remotely communal about it. Debatable yes. Exclusivist yes. Nationalism yes. Communalism no.

This greatly dandered up the Hindu right wing in Jammu. They forced a punishing economic blockade of the valley. This peeved Kashmir no ends. Kashmiris maintained that they indeed did resist the land transfer order but only because certain elements -- in this case a fat ex-governor -- were deliberately trying to undermine Kashmir’s special status. The scheming right-wingers in Jammu rather mischievously painted the issue in overtly religious colors. The average Indian was made to believe that Kashmir has purposely denied land to the cave-god. Nothing can be more farther from truth.

It was actually somewhere during this time, that the almost-forgotten yearning for Azadi again stirred. Soon it had a ripple effect, which caught everyone unaware. Including India’s myriad intelligence agencies in Kashmir. Cities and villages poured out -- in the open -- in one huge show of civil disobedience. The panicky police and para-military resorted to naked aggression. People dug in deep. Multiple duels ensued. Crimson blood spilled. People got bolder. The movement, as I’ve previously posted, is solely powered by people.

There is no love lost for India in the dell. Apparently there is a lack of trust in Kashmir. A huge deficiency of credibility exists. Kashmiris say that they trusted India when the Indian troops landed in Srinagar for the first time in October 1947 [Kashmir was a princely state before Oct 47] but they never held the much-promised plebiscite. One elderly person I spoke to -- this time in Kashmir -- without batting an eyelid said, ‘Pandit Nehru took the Kashmir issue to the UN and told us that we shall be free to decide our fate. I heard him myself on All India Radio. Well I’ve been waiting all these years.’ They haven’t forgotten anything in 62 years.


The alienation sentiment lives on. People remember the 90’s when the armed struggle -- variously called militancy or terrorism -- began in Kashmir. As a kid I didn’t like the violence. A decade and a half later, as a contentious citizen of this country and as a humanist, I think it was utter devastation. Kashmir used to be a surreal, magical place. The conflict turned it into a phantom land. However India perpetuated terrible human rights violations during those years and - yes - people forget nothing. When you try telling them, India is a leading democracy, they point to the martyrs graveyards, full of innocents, killed in cold-blood. Not really, the sad glint in their eyes suggests.

India admits this much, that except for may be two or three elections, most elections in Kashmir during the last 50 years were rigged. There never was true representation. Alas people were never allowed to elect their real representatives. Don't you think they will ever feel dis-enchanted?

Sample this: One gentleman who lost to a rigged result from Srinagar’s Habba-kadal constituency went on to become the commander in chief of the most dreaded militant outfit in Kashmir. Presently the same guy, Mr Yusuf Shah, is the boss of United Jehad Council [an amalgamation of major militant outfits in Kashmir] and calls himself by his code-name Syed Sala-din. His polling agents, I must quickly chip in, Yasin Malik, Javed Mir and Hamid Sheikh all went on to become top militant leaders. While Sheikh was killed, Mir is in Hurriyet, while Yasin Malik, is the single most loved leader in Kashmir now.


I’ve to concede this much: I get put-off by the bike-protestors, waving green flags and shouting their allegiance to Pakistan. I don’t think Pakistan has to ever be an option for Kashmir. It is a failed state after all these years. The country, despite the apparent good-will they still command in the valley, is struggling to rise on its own feet and is crowded by a corrupt elite who will suck in Kashmiris for their own ulterior, shallow motives.

I don’t know when will India get its act right in Kashmir. Till now flawed, stultifying policies have resulted in old wounds being ripped open. Like an old active volcano Kashmir has seen it all growing inside her. Broken promises, deceit, rigged elections, corrupt leaders, armed struggle, bullets, bombs, blood. Tulips. Land grab.

It suddenly erupted on a summer morning.

Sameer

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What ails Kashmir

And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
Shakespeare Hamlet


There was an angry stir in Kashmir this time. Rebellion was rife in the August air. People hollered quite a lot. Newspapers wrote in wolfish Urdu. There were protest marches and corteges. Flags were fiercely fluttered. The rage was alarming. What began as a minor land row has snow-balled into a major controversy. It has split the two main regions of Kashmir and Jammu across communal lines and galvanized the entire populace of Kashmir into almost hysterical calls for Azadi [Freedom]. All of a sudden!

So what went wrong. And so suddenly.

For once India’s Kashmir policy is flawed. Two, the Indian leadership is plain dumb. They should never have allowed things to come to such a pass. The rot could have been stemmed right in the beginning. But hindsight is always 20/20. Yes I can say these things now but the truth be told, one just can’t fathom why India gets it so wrong in Kashmir, always.

Not withstanding the diplomatic language -- that Kashmir is an integral part of India, we need to do a little introspection here. The valley is -- almost always -- on a slow sauté. India understands that but deludes itself in choosing to ignore it. There is a history to the disenchantment of the Kashmiris, kept alive in their memories by a string of rigged elections, broken promises and a spate of terrible human rights violations. Tulip gardens can’t meliorate the hurt. It is quite deep and dark.

Rather than talk to the people of Kashmir, New Delhi got busy with gloss work. Energy was spent on conducting the national games in the winter resort of Gulmarg and erecting lush parks in Srinagar. The sentiment was left unaddressed. Unattended it festered and festered. The Amarnath spat provided the spark. Kashmir was suddenly on fire again.

Being in Kashmir during the latest rounds of protestations, I was caught completely off guard by the people’s power. So was the administration. They ordered the police to fire on un-armed people. 29 innocent people lost their lives. Tempers frayed and emotions swelled further. The Hurriyet grabbed the God-sent opportunity to channelize the sentiment. They are the one’s who call the shots now.

New Delhi, lackadaisical as ever, should have reined in the right winger hoodlums in Jammu and never allowed an economic blockade of the valley, for however small time, in the first instance. The blackmail sent a very wrong signal. Politicians played politics, as they are often wont to, in that small time span. The separatists swiftly made plans for Muzzafarabad. The effort was more symbolic than practical but it was a political masterstroke. That one single call for march undid a lot of achievement. All good-will went down the drain.

Whoever is responsible for administrating Kashmir is a bad administrator. I think the current governor -- a good old retired civil servant -- fumbled. Either don’t let the people assemble at all [easily achievable] and if you do then don’t allow your cops to fire in their chest. Brute force was used to quell protests and that is not done. You can't afford to do that, as a democracy and you don’t do that on people, some of whom think that you are an occupation force. If the intention is to win hearts then you don’t fire on the heart, right?

So how do you fix the blame? Who do you blame? Is it Azad, the supremely dis-connected congressman, who failed to read the writing on the proverbial wall? Is it the Abdulla’s who created the shrine board problem in the first place? Is it Mufti with his dual stances? Is it the stupid fat ex-governor? Is it the wily separatists who upped the ante? Is it the Jammu based Hindu right wingers who are non-players in the entire issue? Who is the culprit? Who do we blame? Perhaps none.

Methinks there is no alternative to dialogue. New Delhi should talk to the leadership in Jammu and Kashmir, across the board. It should have a bold, progressive Kashmir policy. Alleviate some unfounded fears that they harbour. The gloss work should be halted and the main issue addressed.

For once, the sentiment, however irrational, must be considered. Junk the damn funk, as they say.

Sameer

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Cooings on a Curfew morning

Day Three

Third consecutive day of curfew in Kashmir. Movement was mostly trammeled as people remained confined to their homes. There is news though that curfew was defied in a couple of spots. The cops fired upon protestors in several places. Many were beaten up mercilessly in full media glare. The death toll in three days has now gone past 25. The toll of the injured is countless. Hospitals are inundated with the wounded. In Sopore the gun fire just does not abate. It is a perpetual reminder that all is not well and despite the apparent calm, a storm is brewing in the distance.


The local news papers are full of obituaries and tributes to Sheikh Abdul Aziz, a top rung Hurriyet leader who was gunned down Monday as he led a two hundred thousand strong procession during the march to Muzzafarabad. The general strike against the incident is expected to continue till the weekend. Prez Musharraf praised Mr Aziz today. Pakistan has suddenly gotten active after a sinister silence and has passed a resolution condemning the excessive police action in Kashmir. It is preparing to report the matter to UN. India is clearly peeved.


One of my friends managed to click some amazing pictures of the Monday march to Muzzafarabad. In this rare picture, the Hurriyet leader Mr Aziz is seen sitting atop a tractor -- on the right hand side in white Pathani dress -- leading a peaceful demonstration.


This may well be one of the last images of the slain leader because moments later the police shot him dead from point blank. People accompanying him say that the leader was deliberately targeted. The government, of course, refutes the charges.


On a much social level, the changed political climate has altered established norms. With all educational establishments closed for the past one week, children are making merry. No school means the kids are home to pester their parents 24 x 7. There is also an acute shortage of food stuff here. Vegetables are in short supply. Villages have however risen to the occasion. Cartfuls laden with fresh veggies are being brought into townships and city peripheries from the countryside to help the urban populace tide over the hard times.


Staying in Kashmir in these times is riveting and draggy at the same time. These are extraordinary circumstances and each passing day is dramatic. I don’t know how people manage to survive in such settings -- amidst strikes, strife and the suffering. Still they live on! Call it the indomitable human spirit.


Sameer.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Midsummer Mayhem

Day Two


Kashmir continues to simmer. I woke up to gun-shots today. Curfew has been imposed in the valley and everyone is confined to their homes. I am also cooped inside. Cell phones just don’t stop ringing and each ring is a constant reminder that yet more violence has taken place. It is evening time, as I post, and I can still hear crackle of gunfire nearby. I am being told that the police and para-military troopers -- deployed all over the place -- are firing intermittently in the air to stop people from coming out. This is a major clamp-down, as the establishment looks for desperate measures to control the situation, which is clearly slipping out of their hands.

Trying to make most of my fallow time I managed to have a word with some neighbors, my friends and a couple of acquaintances over the phone. The general mood is somber and tempers are clearly on the roil. Almost everyone talks of double standards adopted by the government. While the authorities were lax in Jammu when the Hindu right wing hit the roof there, brute force was used in Kashmir from Day one.

Sample this: While the Jammu agitation was controlled by hooligans, who torched public property and resorted to mass violence, brandishing weapons and tridents, only three people were shot in more than 37 days in the temple city. Two days of protests have already left 20 dead in Kashmir. More than 500 injured. Why the iniquity? People ask. What happened to the famed democratic scruples of India? For once, I have no ready answers.

The separatist leader gunned down yesterday has been buried in Srinagar in the afternoon. A hundred thousand people marched in Srinagar today. They managed to free two prominent Hurriyet leaders -- Mirwaiz Omar and Syed Ali Geelani -- from their respective house-arrests. There have been reports of confrontation between the people and cops from across the valley. Sopore, where I live, witnessed similar scenes. All hamlets around the township are on a slow flame. Emotions are alpine high and curfew is being breached with impunity. For the moment it looks like there is no solution in the sight.

There is a mix of fear and bravado among the people. The defiance is new-found and alarming. Incidents of mob fury are continuously pouring in. Military bunkers are being razed, politicians’ homes are being stoned, police posts are being attacked with a never before ferocity. People justify their acts by citing police’s naked aggression. The government, which bundled in handling the situation initially, is finding it difficult to control the mobs. The flower blossom in the garden of paradise appears abruptly shriveled up.

Rhetoric is flying thick and fast, so are the rumors. Everyone has his own slant and a tale to tell. The curfew, clamp-down and clamor is reminiscent of the early 90’s. Is it back to square one?

Only the other day I saw a tulip trampled on the roadside.


Sameer

Monday, August 11, 2008

March to Muzzafarabad

Day One

Kashmir has been precarious since the day I landed here. My itinerary was rather hectic this time around. I attended a string of fantastic weddings, drove around the famous Dal lake, boated around with pals high up in the hills, took in as much local gossip as possible and breathed in great fistfuls of cold pine air. But more on that later. I start my Kashmir dairy with a distressing note.

First things foremost. The Amarnath land row has completely consumed people here. It has become an emotive and nationalistic issue. The economic blockade of the valley by Jammu based groups has led to much bitterness in Kashmir. In reality the revocation of the land transfer order by the state government is largely perceived as a psychological defeat by the right-wing Hindu lunatic fringe in Jammu. And the mad horde has upped the ante. They have stoned and looted most of the supplies to Kashmir, leading to an acute shortage of essentials in the land-locked valley. Kashmir naturally felt blackmailed and arm-twisted.

Since fuel has run dangerously low in gas stations, cash has dried up in most ATM machines, weddings cancelled en masse, hospitals have gone low on life saving drugs and Kashmir’s famous apple has rotted in the wooden boxes for the lack of transportation, it was unanimously decided that on a pleasant Monday morning, the people of Kashmir shall march to Muzzafarabad, the capital of Pakistan Kashmir. Hurriyet, it was opined, would lead from the front. It would be Kashmir’s answer to Jammu’s blackjack. The argument was that it would be an alternative means to do business in a substitute market. It was also an extremely desperate and symbolic bid.



Though the move was fraught with much danger, the people of Kashmir marched in their thousands. The separatists had already set the tenor: Muzzafarabad Jayenge, Khooni Lakeer toodenge [We shall march onto Muzzafarabad; we shall breach the bloody border]. Incidentally I was away from the clamor, holidaying in Gulmarg but I kept getting regular updates since morning. Some of my acquaintances were in the procession. They kept calling me up from time to time. One of my kinsman was in the border town of Uri. He gave me live dispatches from ground zero. The grapevine was abuzz for the whole day. A hundred thousand people, two hundred thousand, five hundred thousand. It appeared that the entire valley had converged into one huge parade. The grand caravan was on its way to Muzzafarabad. Amidst conflicting reports we decided to drive back home.



Everyone I spoke to, rambled with a bated breath. My sister, my friends…everyone. People who formed part of the procession were naturally out of breath. While chatting with Raj over the cell I overheard someone talking about plucking fruit from one of the many orchards lining the picturesque way to Muzzafarabad. In between someone wanted to know the price tag of the latest I-Phone. Such talk often keeps spirits high when you are marching on in an important march. Meantime my own band had a tough time clearing small roads blocks -- felled trees and rocks -- as we neared home, criss-crossing small, idyllic, verdant but sluggish villages. Once we hit the national highway [the original route of the march], did the reality dawn upon me. Kashmir had really answered the call to march. All roads led to Muzzafarabad. We saw a lame man trundling on. An elderly woman was shouting at the top of her voice. I reckon the movement is mass based now while the momentum is clearly indigenous. This is dangerous maths.



By evening, as I post, bad news has started to trickle in. They didn’t let them breach the border, finally. On the contrary the march seems to have taken an ugly turn, as was anticipated. A confrontation between police and protestors ensued near the border. A prominent separatist leader -- leading one huge procession -- has been shot dead. Scores others have either been killed or injured. The strike, which has been continuing for the last six days, is now expected to go on. People seem resigned to it. They wait for some divine solution. I saw people squatting in little groups all the way from Gulmarg to my home, exchanging conspiracy theories in very hushed tones. They shot angry glances at our way-faring car. An unusual tension is palpable in the air. Everything is closed down. All one can feel is a deep and shrill sense of rancor.

Sloganeering often becomes both a source of strength and lament in a situation such as this. As I blog the day’s developments, I can hear people shouting outside. Call it Kashmir’s second uprising or an irrational exuberance.

I get a feeling it is going to exacerbate in the days to come. I pray it doesn’t.

Sameer
Photo Credits: Raj