Friday, July 10, 2009

Whose city is this?

Kashmir valley is a mere 135 km by 35 km in length and width.
That is it. Srinagar is the only city. In the old world sense.
[London, one of my friends who lives in NY, told me once much to my chagrin, is a glorified village compared to the New York City. Srinagar by that definition would be a complete wasteland, light-years away from anything remotely modern, but here we seek to make an exception for our ‘Shahar’ since we talk of home and hence unabashedly biased].

Now Srinagar is to Kashmir what DC is to the States. Jhelum is our very own Potomac. A little unclean perhaps but we haven’t been a particularly clean people. Talking of Srinagar, how can one give Dal a miss? Dal is our Lake Anna. And in winters when it snows over, we walk on its weed-filled water. Like Jesus. There are other bigger lakes in Kashmir, complete with migratory ducks with pierced yellow beaks and red-crested Pochard in them, but no one will tell you that.

Locally called Shahar, Srinagar an island of close to a million people who speak in an elongated dialect [more likely to say Naaa, compared to a crisp Na spoken in Sopore or Anantnag for instance]. It is also the seat of the government. The civil secretariat [with a million silver fish happily slithering in its myriad layered government files] and the CM’s office is in Srinagar. Hari Niwas, the 66-room palace, build by the last Dogra ruler Hari Singh for his wife [converted into a hell-hole interrogation centre by Indian soldiers during the insurgency years] too is in Srinagar. The obsolete DoorDarshan and Radio Kashmir [still listened to in rapt attention by everyone above 50] have offices in ‘Shahar’.


Historically the original inhabitants of Srinagar, who have since been overwhelmed by a steady stream of people from the countryside, labelled everyone outside the boundary limits of Srinagar: Gamik [villagers]. The word was laced with a very strange potion of conceit. It was exactly said for the purpose: to make the non-Shahri’s feel a little inferior, though they won’t acknowledge it. Just like you don’t call a milkman [Goore in Kashmiri], Goore on his face, yet you say it – amongst family, friends, neighbors – to show the poor milkman his place in society. Also because it satiates a certain class lust, mankind is so drunk on, in us. Marx was not entirely wrong, the erudite, white-bearded German. The City-village debate has a similar sub-text.

Curiously the people living in townships didn’t take such talking-down all too well because they didn’t consider themselves Gamik. People in places as diverse as Sopore, Anantnag, Baramullah, Bandipore, Shopian and other such places consider themselves townspeople, distinct from those living in villages [the real pastoral countryside]. There’s such a realm as middle ground and that’s where towns ought be placed in the pecking order, they opined. Alas the brutes, devouring their Harisa Zafrani [no translation needed, closest would be a hundredth variation of meat, steamed, sautéed, simmered and served piping hot] in the drawing rooms of Srinagar had already blurred the line. Everyone outside of Srinagar is a Gamuk. Period.

The Gamik laid in a patient wait, wearing a hurt and martyred expression, not failing to send their kids to read and write. The Srinagar-wallas meantime got busy selling fake Shawls in Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar and Connaught Place, passing every rag off as semi-Pashmina [there’s nothing called semi-Pashmina. It is like selling semi-Silk]. All this while a quiet revolution was taking place. The folks from Kashmir’s hinterland, notwithstanding their apparent lack of resources and refinement, made their way to colleges and universities. They were fast planting flags of knowledge. Suddenly they were everywhere. The tide had turned.


Coming out of the terror soaked years, Kashmiris had undergone a fundamental change. It was most noticeable in the villages. Having crossed the threshold they refused to be terrorized intellectually. Ergo the best doctors in premium medical institutes, the top civil servants in the government, most skilled professionals and the academic elite come mostly from the villages of Kashmir. The villagers seem to be celebrating their redemption, globally. In the last one week – not one but two Kashmiri girls, from Sopore, joined the Obama administration. Among other things post-Tehreek [variously described as revolution/nuttiness/frenzy] the townspeople perhaps quietly stopped minding such stereotyping. They had become the new Shahris. Gingerly.

However the specter still haunts. It is still fair to ask who’s Shahri and who’s Gaemi in Srinagar, a city whose demographics have undergone a sea change in the Tehreek. The debate, though not too played up [we like things subtle, till they fizzle out] is taking place in the nut-wood paneled drawing rooms of Kashmir. Even the Tehreek -- on its last clutches, and kept alive by Hurriyet through their often inexplicit but bold defiance – is not sacrosant. The rise of Geelani and the downfall of Mirwaiz [both Peers, and that’s another class game] is squarely seen through the Gaemi-Shahri kaleidoscope. A top cop in Kashmir [true blooded shahri] I know, confided to me recently, this Gamuk [Geelani in a disparaging sense, he meant] has made life hell for us.

Even the mainstream is not immune. The ruling Abdullah’s [a mixed family with a true international blood-line: Swiss, Kashmiri, English, Indian] are considered Shahri, though puritans would exclude them. The patriarch Sheikh Abdullah [Yes, the Lion who stopped roaring towards the end] was born in Soura [a village in the outskirts of Srinagar, since integrated into the city]. So the Sheikh’s have always been half-shahri. Things came to a boil in 2002 when the Mufti’s of Bijbehara [Gosh, a village] came to power. So eventually full-Gaemik did rule Kashmir. In a way it marked a complete sub-urbanization of our political space. There were no sacred territories. The whole world, nee Valley, was the oyster. And the mad scramble to grab it continues.

In the olden days, when we were still innocent and spilled no blood, there used to be groups of northern Pintail in Kashmiri villages. Wild geese roamed the streets of Srinagar. They used to quack a lot, both being the same lot – ducks. In the smoke of the clash that we eventually jumped into and have been unable to extricate ourselves from, the duck talk has died out.

We mustn’t, I think stop the chatter, no matter how thick the smoke.