Monday, December 14, 2009

A week in Srinagar

Text and images: Sameer

It was cold as St Andrews Day winds. From inside the plane the cops on the tarmac appeared pink-nosed. They had condensed necks. The paramilitary men, who quickly take positions along the aircraft as soon as it taxies, shriveled. The outside temperature was barely 6 degrees centigrade, which without any heating systems in Kashmir – barring Hamams that the well-heeled have -- is darn cold. As I deplaned, a light icy feeling of abandonment crossed me. There is always something bittersweet about home coming.

As a rule night comes early to Kashmir. I woke up to a nippy Eid morning. It gladdened me that Geelani was in town, and he, like me, had chosen home [read Sopore] for Eid. I mostly get to read his reactionary stuff in the online variants of Srinagar-based English dailies. Nothing beats the thrill of listening to him in person – all shrill and sound and fury. I know most of what he is says sounds dated and obsolete now but I love the finality with which he says it. Mirwaiz doesn’t even come close. Omar will take a lifetime to get there.

Our political leadership [separatist/mainstream], much on the lines of the Pakistani ruling class – and so unlike Indian politicians – are extremely well turned out. They dress smartly, like film stars. Geelani wears long chesterfield overcoats, paired with chequered mufflers, usually contrasted and a nice felt cap. His beard is nicely clipped and grey. Mirwaiz has a stunning collection of designer Pathani dresses and rug caps. Trendy eye-glasses often compliment his jaw line beard. Yasin, our homemade socialist, has a weakness for dark Kurta-pajamas. Embroidered shawls usually drape his frail frame. Not to be left behind most adjuncts and second rung leadership follows the fashion quotient.

And November welded into December and newspapers were suddenly replete with ads and stories in the run up to Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah’s birth anniversary. The Sheikh’s grandson – cover boy for December in the men’s fashion mag GQ – had promised government jobs and other fringe benefits to the natives on the occasion and everyone was eagerly expectant. In Srinagar, the old patriarch Sheikh smiled to his people from the life-size billboards patched across the city. Nearly three decades after his death, nothing much has changed.

[The patriarch laughs]

The night before Omar was to make the grand announcement, flanked by his party confreres [their highnesses, the ubiquitous duo Ali Sagar and Nasir Sogami], someone decided to attack a very fine gentleman, one who always wears a Pheran. Fazal Haq Quereshi, the original rebel and Al-Fatah founder in Kashmir [who made ‘underground’ a household term in the 1960’s] was hit/shot at/clubbed. I was sitting with a bunch of journalists amidst coffee and smoke when texts started to pour in. Suddenly everyone was animated. It was news-night.

On a balmy, cold morning NC workers were chart-wheeled to the tomb of Sheikh Abdullah at Hazratbal. The place looked like a Communist International, with the distinctly red NC flags strung on everything from iron grilling to lamp posts. There was much jostling. In other part of the city – Rajouri Kadal – protestors gathered outside the Mirwaiz manzil [old home of the Mirwaiz] to burn, yes you guessed it right, old bus tyres. Only God knows how many tyres have we burnt in the last two decades? Imagine the CO2 emission. In an era of intense global warming debate.

[Gangs assemble for Kani-jung]

I had Harisa with pals – at a stone's throw from the stone throwers. The intrepid Harisa-seller had very cleverly downed the greasy shutters and we had to literally slither into the mutton-fume-filled shop for a bite. Harisa is like Marijuana. The spices in the meat porridge come together [It tastes heaven] and explode in your head. You feel giddily replete. People speculate who shot Fazal Sahib. There are claps by the Dal bank, near the Sheikh’s concertina insulated mausoleum. Old city is sore. The contrasts stay. Have stayed forever.

[Concertina to protect the Sheikh's last abode]

[The dope den: Harisa shop]

Friends had invited Terra Naomi, an Alternative and rock star to perform in Srinagar. I sat through some of the ideation process. ‘Let’s print car bumper stickers, I opined’. She was to sing to draw the attention of world leaders towards the fast melting glaciers of Kashmir, a source of water to most of the sub-continent. Newspapers [Urdu as well as English] continued to call her YouTube sensation, irking me a great deal. An old man, with Chinese ear-muffs, clearly confused, was heard asking a passerby:

Ye Kahaz Gov you toop. [What’s you tube?]
He thought the government is asking people to switch over to tube-lights.

You killed the joke, tube light.