Thursday, March 25, 2010

Wazwan: Our food fiesta

Fall in Kashmir is an utterly pleasant time. The airs change as if touched by the flapping wing of a bottle-green angel on his way to the sky. There is mild breeze in the tall mosque spires, the undulating nets of fisher folk and the quiet branches of the majestic oaks. The harvest air of pastures. The leaves, an angry shade of crimson, fall off the trees to strew the ground beneath. Orange saffron pads prance to a balmy sun. Gazelles hop. Kashmir is festive.

Marriages cannot have more appropriate timings in Kashmir. Fall is the official season of weddings. A caboodle of autumns ago, I was made aware of my cousin’s marriage and in a week’s span I flew down – cutting excuses and airline deals for me -- to the timeless vale to attend. Weddings in Kashmir are plain euphemisms for food. Food that is partaken, loved and doted on. No wonder a majority of the invitees do not either greet the bride or the groom or give away any gifts. They simply come, eat and go. As if in an open, plentiful, free-for-all eatery, where you drop by and leave. All expenses paid.

Wazwan – is a multi-cuisine mutton fiesta, conducted by the Wazas [master chefs]. Kashmiris on the whole are simply crazy about meat. Voracious eaters of mutton, even Kashmiri Pandits savor their steak. Pluralistic cultures have never blended any better. Wazwan comes close to smorgasbord, Swedish hors d’ oeuvres, but while wazwan is served by a troupe of wazas, the Swedish counterpart is humbly buffeted. And while buffets make you stand, wazwan is relished on ground. Nearer to mother earth.

My uncle, a guy who produces a million juicy apples each summer, made his terms clear. He wanted the feast to be a success, because any wazwan is directly proportional to the success of a marriage and repute of the household. Most of the money, consequently, gets spent on food. The preparations go on a military scale. Work was assigned to each soul remotely related. Friends are called in. I was lucky to escape work on account of two factors: One, I’m a non-resident Kashmiri. Out of sheer regard for the fact, I was not made to run. Two, I got my very fancy-looking digital cam rolling. A journalist filming the feast saved me the day. Rest of the boys, my cousins and second cousins, toiled.


Around evening two red wagons drove in. From inside, sheep bleated monotonously. Destined since birth for the butcher’s knife. Nothing much. When did a sheep last die of old age? Someone later told me that they were all slaughtered and a few didn’t even resist. Another wagon carried the cooking weaponry: ladles, pestles, knives and the army. Army of the wazas. Super-skilled in their craft, these guys possess a Midas touch. Ordinary foods give off aromas of wizardly cumin with an impatient flick of their hands. The wazas wear dirty clothes. So shaggy that they would be perhaps mistaken for mendicants. It is a stylemark: dirty waza-dress and none complains. May be it is a camouflage.

Since my Kashmiri-American pal was in town, I sent a quick invite. My kindergarten buddy used to play Lath-Keenj-Lut [tip-cat] with me when we were kids but now speaks with an American twang and more importantly spots a green card. Unlike me, Kashmir seldom features in his itinerary these days. I was taken by surprise at his rather impromptu visit. Normally used to exotic seafood on holiday cruises in the Mediterranean, Wazwan meant some change. He promptly texted that he would join.

Back at the Vur -- open kitchen -- all the cooking is done the fusty way on fire [logs, twigs and birch branches]. The assistant wazas pound the meat needed for making meatballs. Another group made quick salami of the softer limbs in the lamb. For lamb-skewers. Yet another party religiously sifted the spices. These units work as close-knit regiments and regimental pride is key. They try to outdo each other only to finish together. The pounding and cutting, battering and smashing, slicing and hammering of mutton makes strange nightly noises. The musicality of mutton.

The kerfuffle of Wazas declares a marriage, out loud. It mingles with the wedding songs sung in the women’s enclosure. Kashmir has a tradition of wanwun [madrigaling]. Beautiful women with still beautiful voices tell the stories of love and happiness in a very sing-song fashion. Chorus. They stand like a human chain, arms flung over each other's shoulder and swing like an ancient rhythm. Their carols curl and pop in air. Sprites sit back and take notice, so do men. The place seems drenched in a noisy revelry.


Glib talkers talked about 9/11 in a naive, unintelligent way. Some said that America – and its Jews -- faked the attack. I was asked for a journalistic opinion, which I gave. I don’t think it satisfied them completely. I felt a trifle amused. Though fine fellows, most of their information was gossipy. Meantime the Degs [copper pots] simmered in soft cuddling whiffs under the autumn moon. A Deg with a Waza stirring it unceasingly is more like Getafix, the Gaulish druid standing near his cauldron, tossing his secret ingredients onto it for his magic potion. A gourmet can tell you that Wazwan is only magic!


The D-day finally came. Guests began to flock in by 2pm. They came in two’s and three’s and sat orderly in a large tent (water proof, double draped) pitched in the wide lawn. Kashmiris have spacious homes and large premises, much like their appetites. The Wazas gave their preparations some last minute touches. Soon food began to arrive, in all its grandeur and majesty, in Taramis [largish copper plates]. Four eat from one plate. The romance with copper that started a long time ago has not ended. Not yet. Not even in a disposable world.

Each Tarami is topped with hot rice enough for eight people. Kebabs [lamb skewers], tabak maz [ribs deep fried], meth-maz [minced meat] and chicken is artfully arranged on the plate. This is the first course and people have less than five minutes to finish it off before another dish appears. My American buddy asked for mineral water and immediately got a bottle. Nowadays all feasts serve mineral water. Next came the golf-ball like Ristas, done in rich rouge gravy. Suddenly one feels like lunching under a spice tree.


A bevy of Wazas does the rounds, carefully serving the contents. It is an intangible art that these guys have perfected over many autumns. They pick out exactly four pieces of a course from a Deg along with some spattering of gravy which is served at four different spots in the Tarami. There are a few things in world, which can be eaten with your bare hands and wazwan tops the list. Spoons and forks can stay in the silverware. For a real thing you need to tuck the sleeves, as they say.

A team-leader is selected randomly, one who actually apportions the serving in a Tarami. The decision is unanimous. This is an important moment, for whoever is chosen to do the favor, refuses at first. A secret ring of joy, however, hovers round his heart to know that he is the most suitable bloke. Tarami-leaders do their job sincerely, never saving a bigger share. Even if they would, no one will complain. Whatever can be eaten is quickly gobbled down. Before another serving comes into sight.

As a gold-hued potion shows up, I knew it was Yekhni. Served towards the close of the elaborate wazwan, it is comprised of -- of course, mutton, stewed in curd and some delectable herbs. It is sumptuous and thick. I licked my fingers. My pal said I must watch out for the calories. ‘Normally I take Ahmed’s sugar-free green tea but in the middle of mutton kingdom with master cooks serving to spoil you, you feel like to indulge. A tad.’ The Kashmiri-American looked on.

There are 8 to 10 courses generally. Uncle made it eleven, auspiciously extravagant. There is some inscrutable fixation with 11. Not a figure is browned off. The American bit into finely cut turnip pieces, occasionally squeezing out a young lemon on the vegetable dressing. I couldn’t help work a tiny smile seeing him move his jaws with a steady chomp amongst all the munching around. My friend thought people will have collywobbles with all the food they consume. I rubbished him: Kashmiris imbibe the assortment of spices and it glows in their cheeks. In heads too, at times!


Guys-on-duty: cousins and second cousins kept bringing in extra Sarposhs -- large lids of copper – containing more rice. Each tarami took two generous helpings of ‘new rice’.


Since all good things must come to an end, the waza brings his specialty towards the climax. Gushtaba: a yardstick to measure the chef’s culinary skills. It is a huge ball of meat, marinated with blobs of golden fat. It has a golden soup too, which is tingling. Gushtaba serves as a full stop and looks like an inflated cricket ball or a deflated football. The American friend of mine however called it ‘MOAB’…Mother of All Bombs. Smirking, he took a chunk of it to finish off his lunch. We (me and two others, on our tarami) finished the rest of it, licking the last dreamy dab of gravy.

A mandatory duva [short prayer] said and people were off. [I couldn’t help notice many people actually say ‘ti aamen’ (and Amen) – a curious blend of Kashmiri and Arabic]


A close kin that I am, I was called inside, along with the almost-filled American for an odd ‘Kehwa’ cup. Kehwa is neither tea not lemonade. It is Joe’s nectar. It is a brew sprinkled with lots of apricots and cashews, raisins and almonds. Subtly rouge, thanks to the precious strands of saffron that float in its ripples, it tastes heaven. One feels levitated, somewhere between cloud nine and paradise. The American sipped in a few of the priceless pints, made double.

Early next morning, in my home, I found my washroom occupied. My friend had stayed over for the night. When he didn’t come out for a long time, I tapped. ‘I've got the trots’, he hollered. Clearly Wazwan was too much for his American dietary habits. For once, only once, the Mother-of-all-Bombs had done some harm to an American.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Our street-fighting years

This has been a wrestling week of sorts. After years of fake bonhomie the swords were finally out. Yasin Malik’s little entourage was attacked in Sopore, purportedly by Syed Ali Geelani’s men, perhaps stoned with the one jungle/one lion theory. In a spirit of quick animus, JKLF workers promptly attacked Tehrek-Hurriyet office in Srinagar. Before things could go out of hand, in stepped the druid-like Geelani with a green olive branch. Yasin, always wise as a monk -- albeit in black – raised white flag. With the absence of an alibi for this sudden end-winter spite, an old fish story emerged: handiwork of Indian spooks.

How can the separatists hog all the limelight, all the time? Madame Mufti made her usual random wild accusations against Omar and his fellow clubbers. Since Omar is almost always politically correct and manages to make the opposition look plain silly, Madame has – by now -- perfected the art of instigating the young Chief Minister. And lo and behold: Omar was enraged as a Spanish matador in the state assembly. He spoke blazingly in clipped Urdu and bits of English, while Madame continued to give him that ‘wait-till-I-have-a-real-issue’ look. The mainstream in Kashmir has an uber-aversion of each other.

Angels of death never fail to descent in our neck of woods. Clad in dark, merciless cloaks. In Sopore and Srinagar. Both places there was a volley of tea-colored bullets followed by ugly body bags. Both places poor people got caught up in a mad frenzy. I’m sure justice is a concubine. The poor are like nutmeg. They are always crushed. One such boy, as he was being wheeled to the hospital, had this soupcon red in his eyes, like wanting to hold onto dear life. Moments later he shut them for ever. I cannot stop thinking about the little mole beneath his handsome brow.

In a matter of few minutes those boys became the latest statistics in Kashmir's murky tale. Both were poor: a vendor and a store assistant. The poor always die. Rich get away. Rich boys ski. They drink coffee in plush cafés. They wear au-de-perfume. They blog. They debate on intellectual constructs. They eat caviar. And Harisa. In Kashmir people are filthy rich [at least the ones I know are]. The concentration of wealth, like elsewhere, is so inequitable. And the less privileged, almost always, get killed. That is a given.

The separatist camp burns a lot of gas in trying to out-do each other to reach the families of those who get killed. The dead are often hailed as martyrs in presence of their un-dead folks, in a certain reassuring way so that their loss looks acceptable. It is strangely tragic that no one wants to die and yet when you get blown up, you become an instant martyr like Saint Sebastian. Redemption is attained in death at least, if not in life in the valley.

I often think of Kashmir as this distant Arcadia – inhabited by shepherds and antlered hanguls. Intrigued that I am with its pastoral simplicity, I dream of her virgin wilderness.

As if on a cue, I cut the blood part.


Thursday, March 18, 2010

To my amigo: Come back

The darkness is here
And I am afraid to enter
~from a poem by Selcuk

There is a certain understated elegance about Selcuk – pronounced Sel-Juk -- that makes him very impressionable. He is satiny, like a Pasha who never got to go to a war. Selcuk wrote amazingly sensitive poetry in Turkish but could never hold a conversation for too long. He understood the happiness of winter and walked along the Bosporus on cold evenings – all alone – with nothing but a merry tinkle in his eye.

I bumped into him many years back in a virtual alley. He sounded like an upriver boy with no pretensions. That enamored me. Like so many young souls in Turkey he wished to break free and float to freer lands. Eventually he came to the United States and took up a small job in Cincinnati, Ohio. He fell in love with America. Selcuk went back to Istanbul to complete his studies. He said he would return but never really did.

A trademark tuff of flowing hair easily camouflaged Selcuk as a rock star. His lone weapon was a disarming smile which he used to devastating effect. Originally a Kurd, his folks came from a beautiful place called Siirt in Southeast Turkey. According to a legend a local lord had a beautiful daughter whom he decided to give in marriage to someone important from another clan. The girl was in love with a shepherd named Ali.

The big-nosed father paid no heed to the girl’s objections and she was obliged to give in to his wishes. The wedding day came and the wedding procession, with the bride riding on a horse, set out for the bridegroom's village. On the way back mournful strains of a flute were heard in the mountains. The girl knew it was Ali playing and called out to him, 'Run Ali! Take me away.'

The shepherd galloped up beside her on his horse, pulled her onto the saddle behind him, and the couple was soon out of sight. Some time later a village was built on the spot where the elopement had taken place, and it was called Seyirt, meaning 'run', after the girl's cry to her beau. In time Seyirt became Siirt. Selcuk was born in the same romantic village, though I am not too sure if he ever visited the exact spot.

In one of my last conversations with Secuk he told me that I’d love Taşbaşı, a place near his home. It is a deep gorge with intriguing rock formations through which the river Uluçay races along its winding course. The Billoris spa is located next to it. The spa has a large pool with hot sulphurous water. Selcuk invited me to come and take a dip. One feels strangely revived and rejuvenated, he chuckled.

It was tales like these and many more that made me like Selcuk.
He had a sudden offhand charm that innervated you. I haven’t met too many people who are so truthful, transparent and kind at the same time. Yet there was an inferno in him which I found hard to fathom. It came to me as a cross betwixt a burst of poetry and a wordless note of zest. May be I could never completely understand him.

Early today I was told of his pain. He lies comatose in an Istanbul hospital. Quite unknown to me, it appears he was nursing a brain tumor for which he underwent an operation. Soon after he slipped into a deep coma, out of which he is yet to emerge. I suddenly hear words on the night breeze. I feel heartsick. It is sorrow, the size of sky.

I wish life had an undo-function. It is such an uphill battle. Such an unjust trek.

I just hope Selcuk – my friend -- makes it. I’m yet to take the dip.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

1846: Lest we forget

One hundred and sixty four years back -- this very day -- was Monday, March 16, 1846. Two foppish Englishmen and an over-dressed Dogra feudatory sat across a long table in Amritsar. The middle rung Brits -- Frederick Currie, Esq [a rank just below the Knight] and Brever-Major [a temporary commissioned officer] Henry Montgomery Lawrence signed on the dotted line along with Gulab Singh, the Dogra Maharaja, in what came to be called the Treaty of Amritsar. The Right Honorable [British fixation with Honorifics was at its silliest] Governor General Sir Henry Hardinge was present to strike his signet seal to settle the deal.
The treaty has all of ten articles.

Gulab Singh had a very scheming sense of self. He was diplomatic and astute, earning him the moniker Talleyrand of the East. Serving as a top commander in the Sikh Court of Ranjit Singh of Lahore [started off on a salary of Nanak Shahi 275] he went on to become the Raja of Jammu for his services to the Lion of Punjab. After Ranjit Singh’s death he trucked the Lahore treasury – 16 carts full of silver coins -- to Jammu. Gulab stayed completely neutral in the Anglo-Sikh war and before that favored the English in their Afghan wars.

The Brits never forget an act of kindness, especially of the wily kind. Kashmir was in many ways a British gift to Gulab Singh for being such a loyal turncoat. The Brits were so pleased with his services that they decided to give away the hilly country of Kashmir with all its dependencies situated to the eastward of the River Indus and the westward of the River Ravi to Gulab at a discount. Kashmir landed in the Dogra kitty for their unscrupulousness.

Infact the initial asking price for Kashmir was Nanak-Shahi 10.5 million, which the Sikhs couldn’t dole out. [The Sikhs, ruling Kashmir, offered to cede territory in lieu of the money demanded as war indemnity. The British were quick to lap the offer]. Kashmir went to the deferential Dogras at a mere Nanak-Shahi 7.5 million, half the original offer. The former frontier chief – and Raja of Jammu -- was the new Maharaja of Kashmir. This was unique in that unlike other Indian states, there would be no British Resident to oversee the reign in Kashmir. God knows Gulab turned out to be as petty as he was ruthless. History is testament.

The Dogras went on rule Kashmir harshly for a little over one century, thanks to the Treaty of Amritsar. As per Article ten of the treaty each year they had to most-respectfully present the Britishers with one horse, all teeth intact, a dozen goats of approved breed between the age of 8 and 9 – six male and six female -- and half a dozen Cashmere shawls with intricate design work.
The farce was complete.

That was rather easy for the ruling camarilla. They anyway made little distinction between man and beast.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Education on sale

I learned nothing there. It was just a question of ratto-maroing [cramming]
~Aga Shahid Ali, Kashmir’s greatest poet in English, on his undergraduate degree at the University of Kashmir.

Good teachers are costly, but bad teachers cost more
~Bob Talbert

B.Ed (Bachelor in Education) in Kashmir is like bats in the belfry.
It is the education scam of the decade. The colleges are mostly run of the mill. Kashmir University is wholly complicit. And it has now reached a point where the arrangement is pure assembly line. All you got to do is this: Cough up the desired money and the college will take care of attendance, study material, list of probable questions expected in the final examination, among other things. In simple words, while you unwind on your bed, your B.Ed degree churns out of the sham-academic-conveyor-belt.

The state has about 150 B.Ed colleges, all but two of which are private. This comprises of our education mafia. They are mostly incompetent blokes with little or inconsequential education, adept only at selling a bill of goods. The degree-shops charge exorbitantly -- for a B.Ed degree -- from close to 50,000 students who annually take up the course. Since most of the students are from outside Kashmir we have this unique distinction of exporting a very mediocre grade of alumni who learn nothing but the art of bunkum here.

Any private B.Ed college willing to grease the palms of the Education department in the Kashmir University is granted affiliation -- to fleece poor students. Swindlers masquerade as professors only to act hand-in-glove with these colleges. So we have B.Ed colleges mushrooming like wild flowers in pine woods. There is one in every borough. Consequently we have more B.Ed shops than regular colleges. With zero intellectual capital and shoddy infrastructure those managing the show mostly hire retired teachers to impart new ideas and latest skills to the next generation. The joke is on us.

The spurt in militancy in the 1990’s saw an unusually huge spike in the number of students from outside the state, particularly from places like Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh coming to take up B.Ed courses in Kashmir. This was around the same time when several state governments in India made the degree mandatory for aspiring teachers. Soon everyone in Kashmir scrambled for their share, like the Californian gold rush. The corpulent Education department in Kashmir University -- which mandates the B.Ed degree and the affiliation business – couldn’t have asked for more. Everyone in the department made hay while the proverbial sun shone.

To attract more students from other states – who mean no more than cattle to these institutes -- Kashmir University relaxed admission norms. Earlier, a minimum of 46 per cent was needed for admission. The limit has been further dropped to 36 per cent. And students taking up the course are expected to acquire the craft of imparting knowledge to the new generation. And more importantly have that hallowed suffix to their other degree/s [BA. B.Ed, MA. B.Ed. How frigging fancy!]

An educational system can never be worth a dime if it teaches young men and women – irrespective of their state of birth -- how to make a living but flunks to teach them how to make a life.

Meanwhile admissions are open for B.Ed 2010. Apply early.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Romance in the hills

Naad ha layei, Myani Yusufo wallo
[Am calling out for you, come my Yusuf]
~quoted by the wandering Zoon, also known by her famous nom de plume, Habba Khatoon, the ravishing beauty, songster wife of Kashmir’s last independent king Yusuf Shah Chak

The year is 1579. The day is cloudy and unseasonably cool. There is talk that Emperor Akbar in a fit of secular benevolence has abolished Jizya – per capita tax on the unbelievers – and the plains of neighboring Hindustan are agog with songs of gramercy. Kashmir is a tiny independent kingdom, ringed by the mahogany mountains of Pir Panjal. A lot of wild strawberry has grown in the valley this season. Early morning a white horse has been seen cantering in the hills. The lone horseman appears regal. More than a huntsman, he looks like someone chasing Monarch butterflies.

Yusuf Shah Chak ascended to the throne earlier that year after a bitter power struggle with his uncle Abdul Chak. The Chaks originally came on horsebacks from the country of Dards, a beautiful but godforsaken land sandwiched between 16th century Afghanistan and Kashmir. Ghazi Khan Chak, the first ruler, established the Chak dynasty in Kashmir in 1555, around the same time that Humayun, the Mughal scion [who died a year later, catching his foot in the royal robe, while descending stairs at dawn] began his second reign in Hindustan. Over the years Kashmir grew on the Chaks.

The Chaks were generous but quarrelsome. They had unusual foes. On an expedition to Ladakh in 1562, Ghazi Chak got severe frostbites and was forced to abdicate to his brother Husain Shah Chak. After Husain Shah, the throne went to the younger brother Ali Chak. Yusuf Shah Chak, the tall, springy and nimble footed horseman, son to Ali, would be the last Chak king and the last independent Kashmiri ruler till Sheikh Abdullah assumed emergency powers 361 years later, in 1947. Ofcourse Yusuf knew not what fate had in store when he strode his fine steed that mild morning.


The young king was given to solitary bouts of roving in the hills. In those days people used to say that he was a tramp-king and he went to the woods to watch the mating rituals of woodpeckers. The court whisper was that the king likes the heady scents of the jungle. In the middle of a forest a faint wind laden with the perfume of a million perfumeries blew. It came from the bosom of the hills. Yusuf Shah Chak strode uphill to find out the origin. The horse was racing at 9,000 feet above sea level. Just when the ride would begin to feel schlepping, the king stumbled across the origin of fragrance.

It was a meadow that resembled a rainbow. Everywhere Yusuf looked he saw color. Violet Wisterias made frenetic love to bumble-bees with orange tails. The king alighted from his horse and took off his sandals. He ran barefoot on pea-colored grass that had remained untrampled for ages. Where he stopped to catch some breath, lofty pines grew teensy carnation, near their bases. A little ahead pink roses bloomed by a brook that had lots of slippery cobbles in it. As the Sultan hunkered down to reflect at his sudden discovery, an ewe, white as full moon, appeared from nowhere. Yusuf was convinced that he had sauntered into a lee of paradise. He named it Gulmarg [the land of flowers].


Thick woods hide entire villages in them. And people in those villages too. And their little secrets. Yusuf was to unloop some of it. An incredibly captivating beauty named Zoon [Kashmiri for Moon] by her poor peasant parents lived in one such hutment called Chandhoor. She sang Kashmiri songs in a high careful voice in the orchards near to her hut. Local lore has it that the nature-loving king riding incognito nearby heard her one evening. Yusuf was in torpor upon seeing her. She too fell for the handsome royal having no knowledge of his superior pedigree. Though already married Zoon eloped with Yusuf. They spent warm nights on haystacks under moonshine. Zoon became Habba Khatoon [Lady Love] to the king of Kashmir. Srinagar’s Habba Kadal is named after her.


Courts are such sly places. Especially during the onset of winters. While the king was galloping in the country, exploring new pastures untouched by old miseries, the powerful courtiers in Srinagar put their scheming heads together. The fat men rallied around a rebel Syed Mubarak Khan. One evening -- when the early winter wafts made chill against the skin if you rode too fast -- Yusuf Shah Chak left Srinagar to greet a million migratory birds. The first light of morning brought with it the tweedle of whistling Mallards, Greyleg Geese and amatory Gadwalls. Shovellers made mystic melody-pipe music. Flocks of triangle-headed Pochards and bald Coots had come quietly in the dark. Now there was a chirruping riot. In Srinagar the king had been overthrown.

The first reign of Yusuf Shah Chak lasted a little over year. He was brought down by a band of rebels in 1580. An exile in his own land, the deposed king attempted to gather men and means with much difficulty to fight his well-entrenched adversaries. When at first Yusuf failed to take the crown back he approached Emperor Akbar for help, thereby sowing the first seeds of Hindustan’s interest in Kashmir. Akbar initially procrastinated. Yusuf changed his mind and decided to go it alone. He made a final push to reclaim power. The battle of Sopore, fought between Yusuf Shah Chak and Lohar Shah was decisive. It resulted in a resounding victory for Yusuf. With a dragon-lance in his hand he triumphantly marched on to Srinagar.
The tramp king was back.


Hobnobbing with big empires is often a risky affair. Akbar never took too kindly to Yusuf’s fickle change of mind. Emissaries came down from Agra – Mughal capital – asking Yusuf to attend Akbar’s court and pay respects. Yusuf, the mellow-hearted, might have obliged but for stiff opposition from the fiercely independent minded nobles and supporters who wanted nothing to do with Akbar or Hindustan. Eventually he didn’t go. Thus began the Mughal scorn for Yusuf and Kashmir’s much vaunted sense of independence.

The Mughal onslaught was swift. It came in 1586. Yusuf was called for secret talks in the middle of the war. Chroniclers write that escorted by four bodyguards on horses, Yusuf Shah Chak arrived at his advance post. A fine rain was falling. The wind blew the rain across his handsome face. He bade farewell to his kingdom and rode for Hindustan. That was the last he saw of his beloved Kashmir, his beloved Zoon. He was promptly imprisoned.

The Mughal imperialism was complete. Kashmir was their northern-most outpost.

To this day Kashmiris hum the poetry of loss sung by Yusuf Shah Chak’s peasant queen, walking the tracks of Kashmir’s hauntingly surreal landscape:

Katue Chuk nound Banyo
Walla Mashooq Myano
[Where are you, my dapper love/Come home my beau]

The effrontery may have been battered but the romance lives on.


PS: Yusuf Shah Chak, Kashmir’s last independent king, died in 1591. He is buried in a nondescript village called Biswak, near Nalanda in Bihar. Following year 1592 his son Yakub Shah Chak was poisoned. Habba Khatoon’s simple grave is located near Athwajan on the Jammu-Srinagar national highway.

The Mughals ruled Kashmir for 167 years, with the help of 35 governors.