Thursday, April 29, 2010

Being Dead

[Selçuk: Sep 20, 1985-Forever]

Emily Dickinson, one of America’s most powerful poets was a recluse. She had extracted a promise from her younger sister to burn all her papers after her death. Thankfully Lavinia didn’t set a match to her famous sister’s poems. Dickinson’s poetry survived, and is considered among the finest in the world -- for her lifelong fascination with the inscrutable theme of dying. Emily met her maker in 1886, age 55, and is buried in Amherst, Massachusetts, very close to our very own Agha Shahid Ali’s final resting place. Shahid deeply loved Emily’s works.

Agha Shahid Ali’s hauntingly beautiful poetry evokes a very private pain in us. He died of a brain condition at 52. I have often wondered why God chose to put the rotten tumor in one of the most gifted minds of our times. Deep in his mind-matter. Why are the most matchless of men the first ones to get marching orders? Why do the finest fall first? Why do the young have to die? Why is parting so awfully painful? I get no answers. Only an eerie static. Like snow falling on a silent night. Oft times we have to learn to answer our own questions. And answers are such mousetraps.

I knew this wonderful Turkish guy who was pals with me. He too had a beautiful mind. I would sometimes give him some silly shaggy dog story: that when he laughs on phone I can distinctly hear Cheshire cats meow in the background. “I mean it Selçuk, I’d say for effect”. “Shut-up, Sam he retorted, there are no Cheshire cats in Istanbul”. “Only Pisîka Wanê, which is perhaps Kurdish for Van cats.” “And guess what, Sam, I have a cat in my lap right now”. “Didn’t I say I heard mewling”, I chortled. “But the cat is so quiet, Sam, he replied innocently. “You freak me out”. Ofcourse he had informed me in an earlier chat about the cat and he would simply misrecollect.

Selçuk was a regular guy with boyish dreams full of blue dolphins.
He lived by the Bosporus. With a gift for languages, he became a translator at 23. I used to get mails containing Turkish glossary from him. He quietly fed fish in the strait that connects the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Mackerels, sardines, and tunny would swim to him to nibble at small chunks of food he threw at them. Makes me feel content in a strange way, he explained. I thought he was being seraphic to the fish in a selfish world. Selçuk ceased breathing yesterday, carrying to his youthful grave, many such small secrets. The fish of Bosporus may well go hungry.

Personally I feel like a potpourri of emotions – between being awful and helpless. I hate losing people I love. But I lose people from time to time. Every time I love people, they just seem to go away forever. My unmarried aunt died of cancer on a windy autumn evening. I cried a lot, I remember, shaking like a young leaf on a maple tree. Many years later mom breathed one last time. It was a bitter wintry afternoon. I was 17 and I loved her like a teen. She didn’t open her eyes even as I kept wailing like a banshee. The dead never open their eyes. They aren’t allowed to. I don’t know why.

Rafi, the guy who helped me grow up fell off the roof from his small two-room home last year on a rainy day. I was not in Kashmir. I never am. Something happened to his head. In a week he was dead. Tears welled up in my eyes when someone rang me up. Rafi used to pray and fear God a lot, like all mortals. They say that fireflies glow by his grave now. I refuse to believe. He was 40 and shouldn’t have been in that cold grave. Fireflies make-out when they emit those lights.

Selçuk was the last person I’d like to see dead. He was too tender footed to go. But he is gone. At least he has no fear now. After the first death, there is no other, Dylan Thomas suggests. I think I agree.

I seem to have figured it out by now. There is this veil – that is what I reckon, death is. It is dark and rag-like. Stitched in many places by some glum thread. When it flutters it spews a scent that gives you heartache – the size of wild blue yonder. No one who walks into it, ever walks out. They are exaggeratedly proper about it.

We, the living, are always asked to move on, pray for the dead and forget. But how can one forget memories? Death ends a life not a relationship. I don’t think I can ever forget my aunt, my mom, my Rafi maam, my Selçuk. I can’t afford to. I intend to immortalize them.

As Dickinson wrote in her insanity:

Bereavement in their death to feel
Whom We have never seen --
A Vital Kinsmanship import
Our Soul and theirs -- between --

For Stranger -- Strangers do not mourn --
There be Immortal friends
Whom Death see first -- 'tis news of this
That paralyze Ourselves...

Who, vital only to Our Thought --
Such Presence bear away
In dying -- 'tis as if Our Souls
Absconded -- suddenly –

If they don’t allow cats, I hope they let Selçuk translate laughter in paradise.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

At the last gasp

Was it effortless?
like your smile
Did they wake you up?
one last time
Or was it quick?
like a burglar in night
How many wings did it have?
Grim-reaper or arch-angel
Did you float or glide?
was it heady, like dope
Could you see our eyes?
from the cheese-like moon
Is it hot or is it cold?
beyond the stars
Do souls have foot-prints?
in the kingdom of heaven
Is it limitless hence?
are you weightless tonight
Will they let you see God?
from an opening in heaven
I’ll see you in the cow-slips
by your distant grave

© Sameer
~Dedicated to my amazingly mad-cap friend Selçuk, who passed away earlier today

Published in Poets' Basement -- CounterPunch Magazine, USA -- on the weekend May 7-9, 2010.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

What is my cure?

A Kashmiri, with a mushroom-like conical cap called soozun-dar toep in the local idiom, falls sick. It is a very strange condition – a mix of delirium and restlessness – which is particularly aggravated whenever gladiatorial jackboots kick him in the stomach or Kohl-eyes, filled with malevolence, stare at him. The man, sick as a secret, decides to seek cure. We call him a Koshur [Kashmiri] to respect his privacy.

Koshur: Jenab [Sir], what ails me? What is my cure?
Syed Ali Shah Geelani: You’ve got a condition called occupation-disorder. I’d recommend two tea-spoons of a wonder drug to you.
It is called audacity. Have it without fail. Every day. Also stop work on Fridays. I think you shall be just fine. Very soon.

Weeks blow past. No respite. Anxiety continues. He goes to a priest.

Koshur: Jenab, what makes me uneasy? What is my cure?
Mirwaiz: You have been walking middle of the road for too long.
The dust on your soozun-dar toep suggests so. Do you know dialogue drug? It works. I don’t have any samples left from my last foreign visit, or I’d have given you some. It works.

Days fly by. No help. Antsiness increases. He visits a star-gazer.

Koshur: Jenab, my pain is awful. What is my cure?
Yasin: Your internal romanticism is dead. Externally you look burnt-out. Give up on power-lamps in your home and instead burn a Mashaal [Torch-light]. Imagine if seven million people burn Mashaals at night. That would be infinitely symbolic.
The demons will leave.

Months elapse. The unrest remains. Koshur goes to see a doctor.

Koshur: Jenab, I’m sick. What is my cure?
Farooq Abdullah: Tsche chi Preh [You are possessed]. It is a green Jinn, the most mischievous of all gnomes. It guards a chest with no treasure in it. No medicine will fix you. There’s only one solution to this madness: counter-madness. So get up and dance. Dance with me.
Dance your worries away.

The Koshur exits the clinic and quietly walks in the rain swept city.
It has just been announced that Kashmiri blood is expensive.
It is not cheap now.

© Sameer
Filed under: Mini-blogs

Friday, April 23, 2010

April sprinkles

Rain -- cold small beads
come slanting down
on Zero Bridge,
upon old waters that flow beneath

Wet almond blossom
in night-long showers
scattered in bolshie gardens by the Dal
stamped upon by everyday ghosts

Bloodshot glower in black skies
Men in sand-bags with sad, cold eyes
Spring showers upon ugly bayonets
early rain on parched souls

Moist, hidden graves in deep, distant woods
under damp raspberry trees
Dead sleep in rain-swept dark
the undead roll in stone Hamams

Rain spatter on familiar roofs
Rainy sounds like idle words
Rain-color puddles on the boulevard
No rain songs to live it up

© Sameer

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Tulips and texts

Phone rings in Room 134 in North Block, office of India’s home minister:

Omar: Hi, this is Omar. Could you put me onto Mr Chidambaram?
PA to Chidambaram: The minister is busy. In any case he is in no mood to talk to separatists.
Omar: This is Omar Abdullah, for heaven’s sake. Abdullah with an A. A for Allegiance, not Azadi.
PA: Oh, I am sorry Mr Abdullah. Transferring the call.
Omar: Mr Chidambaram. Good morning.
Chidambaram: Morning Omar, How is Srinagar?
Omar: There are tulips all over. In each lea and meadow. On CRPF bunkers outside my home.
Chidambaram: Don’t remind me of CRPF. Makes me think of Maoists, those cruel red flags.
Omar: My flag is also red.
Chidambaram [mischievously]: But you have blue eyes, Omar.

Omar smiles a shy smile. The tulips, outside his home, blush.

Omar quickly continues: Oh, I forgot, I called up to demand – no sorry, seek is the word – a ban on ‘block SMSes’ in Kashmir.
Chidambaram: Does SMSing bother you?
Omar: There are text terrorists lurking in the mountains behind the tulip garden.
Chidambaram: Grave, very grave.
Omar: Yes. Please make a call to Raja.
Chidambaram: I’ve no regard for kings and princes.
Omar: I mean A Raja, the telecom minister.
Chidambaram: oh, fret not Omar. My boys will do the needful.

Half an hour later.

Phones calls get made. There is frenetic activity in the telecom ministry. Notifications are quickly typed. Service providers in Kashmir are rung up. Text messages are banned. News is flashed on Internet. FaceBook status messages begin to get irate.

An hour later.

Omar: Hello, Can I speak with Mr Chidambaram? This is Abdullah. Omar Abdullah.
PS to Chidambaram: Right away, Sir.
Omar: Mr Chidambaram, I’d asked for a ban on ‘Group SMSes’. You got all SMS banned.
Chidambaram: Oh, I thought you said block SMS.
Omar: No, I meant ‘block’ as in group SMSes, used by the rumor mongers.
Chidambaram: Sorry I’m somewhat unhinged these days.
Omar: Can you have the order revoked? Mehbooba may gang up with Geelani on me. Already text terrorists are fuming and the FaceBook crowd is up-in-arms.
Chidambaram: A Raja is off to Nilgiris.
Omar: And Priyanka is in Srinagar.
Chidambaram: OMG, that skipped my head. Please ensure a pleasant stay.
Omar: Ofcourse I will. How about the call to Raja?
Chidambaram: I’ve winked my boys already. They are on the job.
Omar: Thank you.
Chidambaram: Happy Tuliping.

© Sameer
Filed under: Mini-blogs

Friday, April 16, 2010

My fearless comrades

I fear three newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets.

In Kashmir…the arena of an armed confrontation between separatist elements and state security forces, continued to pose serious challenges for journalism through the year.
~ Annual Press Freedom Report for South Asia

Journalists are a very strange tribe. We write and speak to inform and educate. As also entertain. We are paid to be creative -- to report, to observe, to get down to brass tacks. To dine with the who’s who. We often hobnob with the rich and travel with the poor.
We perform shack jobs for the powerful. We offend. We distort.
We bring out the truth. We are feted about and hunted down.

Reporting from a conflict zone – like Kashmir – can often prove to be tricky. The coverage of events has got to be non-partisan.
A journalist has to take care of loads of stuff: citing sources, double-checking facts, providing necessary contextual background and oft times, offering their own observations, perfigurations of interpretations without the urge to editorialize. That isn’t always easy.

The tinker of a slow duel -- of crisis and credibility -- is subliminally heard in a journalist’s mind always. Therefore the importance of information in a complex conflict situation is very critical. And journalists – being peddlers of such info – also become critical.
The nature of the job is such that there is no retreating from an impending danger, nor can you brazenly afford to antagonize the street view. You feel like a drunkard with a spadroon in hand.

Whenever I visit Kashmir, people regularly tell me that journalists here are either paid agents or spies or lackeys. Or all the three.
And by and large journalists have zero-ethics, they throw-in for good measure, tagging me along. The fear emanates from a real danger. The danger that media is rented by crooked leaders to underwrite national fears and hatreds. All things considered, most journalists resist this temptation. Those who give in, automatically, cease to be journalists and become propagandists.

A hack needs to tread warily, like a female model on a tottery ramp. That is because media can easily become a weapon of war. Lots of journalists are under a constant squeeze to promote fragmentation of human society. They have to strive to stay unfettered and free from such pressures. I think the important question of conscience comes into play here. And conscience is a very human trait.

Umberto Eco, the Italian medievalist, philosopher and intellectual said last fall – and I sat in rapt attention listening to him – that we must define the limits of tolerance and to do this we must first know what is intolerable. Sadly a society like Kashmir provides little leeway to understand the fine line between tolerance and intolerance. Top reason why journalists find themselves in the infamous list of the most disliked group, just beneath politicians.

In reality a code of ethics does exist for journalists. The code is simple: to seek after truth, to be independent and to minimize harm. Under any circumstances the sub-text is no simple detail. How can journalists be immune and avoid being exploited for political objectives? How can journalists differentiate between a planted and a genuine story? How can a conflict be reported objectively – with both sides of the picture – in intense friction?

I reckon journalists' ethics are largely a content issue, and governments should have no proper role in media content. Period. When men in media say they do 'nation-building journalism' it means they simply end up toeing the official line. Likewise when they highlight every silly syllable that the separatist bandwagon utters in Kashmir, they inadvertently eschew their responsibility as watchdogs of society.

The 19th century British cultural critic Mathew Arnold once famously said that journalism is literature in a hurry. In the 21st century Kashmir, journalism is fast becoming organized gossip, to paraphrase Egglestone.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

The wisdom of our fathers

My Italian friend Umberto [Laurelli, not Eco] used the expression – The wisdom of our fathers – the last time we yakked away. It has been almost six months since the death of the great French thinker Claude Levi-Strauss, the old Jew of Alsace, whose beautiful observations in Tristes Tropiques [The sad tropics], made the anthropological world stand up and take notice. As one of the world’s finest minds, Levi Strauss was the first to observe that ‘human mind’ has the same structure – the world over. Both the savage mind and the civilized mind, he thundered, are structurally the same.

Man’s wild goose chase for answers, the search for underlying pattern of thought of all forms and kinds of human activity – like why we do something, what prompts an action, who prods us, when are we decided about something, where does it all evolve – came to be collectively called Structuralism. In the analysis of culture and language – the building blocks of any society -- as also mythology and kinship, the role of Structuralism has been very profound.

When Levi Strauss came out with La pensée sauvage [The Savage mind] – a body of scholarly work, it pitted two of the greatest French intellectuals of all times – Levi Strauss and Juan Paul Sartre over the question of ‘nature’ of human freedom. Freedom has been an eternal fascination with all men of words and ages. Strauss rubbished the idea of radical human freedom, put forth by Sartre and instead focused on human behavior. In the 60’s these ideas became a rage. But times change. And everything changes with it. Eventually Structuralism came to be overcast by post-structuralism and deconstruction.

Literary theorist Jacques Derrida made a pitch for binary opposites -- like maleness and femaleness, day and night, gay and straight – to drive home the point that there are no rigid categories but fluidity and it is well nigh impossible to compartmentalize or separate things fully. So there are no categories in absolute sense. Michel Foucault -- chair at the prestigious Collège de France – argued that all history and cultures influence ‘underlying structures’ – like texts – and a bias can’t be ruled out. Therefore we must study both – the object and the system of knowledge that produced it.

Philosophers. How they anatomize feelings? Super-sleuths.

© Sameer
Filed under: Mini-blogs

Friday, April 09, 2010

Where is the money, honey?

The commies think striking is counter-revolutionary.
In Kashmir we believe otherwise. The art of going on a strike has been near perfected. Conflicts clear your head and make you take risks. Month-long strikes are routine. If last year was completely dedicated to human rights violations [against Shopian rapes] the year before saw protests for the alleged dilution of Kashmir’s special status [against Amarnath land grab]. This is the season of economic picketing. All the government employees have abandoned work in Kashmir. The strike is now in its sixth straight day – and expected to go on for another couple of days, at least. Demands range from payment of arrears according to the recommendation of the 6th Pay Commission to an enhancement of the retirement age from 58 to 60.

It is a funny situation. Like trundling down a cliff in a wagon without brakes and fighting over which songs to play. The bankrupt state of Kashmir stands to lose upwards of Rs 25 crore each day of the strike. The state government has no money. To meet the demand of its 450,000 mutineer-ing employees, it needs Rs 4000 crores [close to a billion dollars]. That is more than the revenue the state government raises in taxes in one year. Omar is cornered. The demands attempt to put a shake on him. Going to Delhi, asking for funds is an option but will the federal government foot the bill? What of our economic independence? Is interim taxation an alternative?

Already we have as many unemployed youth, as the striking government employees.

Meantime everyone is lovin’ it. Stay home. A good midday meal. Quick Friday prayers. Nun-Chai [Salted tea] at 4pm. IPL in the evening. The strike continues.

© Sameer
Filed under: Mini-blogs

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Jailed for ever

The state is doing everything in its capacity to elevate Shabir Shah to the status of Nelson Mandela. Infact Shabir has now clocked close to 25 years in jail since 1978 when he was arrested for the first time. In between he has been out a couple of times before being quickly bundled-off to bastille. Amnesty International calls the likes of him POC – prisoners of conscience. Simplified it means the state holds you down for non-violent expression of a conscientiously-held belief. Of all the major dramatis personae in the Amarnath land row, Shabir was singled out and incarcerated. Released in Jammu, the day before, he was promptly re-arrested. It is still one and a half years before Shabir completes a total of 27 years in jail, the number of years Mandela spent in the Robben Island prison. Perhaps broken jail-terms don't count.

George Galloway, the maverick British MP, thinks Shabir is a case fit for Nobel peace prize. I reckon the grey in Shabir’s hair is elegant.

© Sameer

Filed under: Mini-blogs

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The end is nigh

Finnish dredging machines dubbed ‘Water Master Classics’ have arrived in Srinagar along with foreign engineers to clean the Dal Lake up -- once and for all. The machines came all the way from the little Nordic country -- by road! First to the west Russian city of St Petersburg, from where the two-truck convoy moved to Moscow. The machines entered Kazakistan at Orsk, leaving the country near the Aral Sea for Uzbekistan. After a brief halt in Bukhara – with which Kashmir has some cosmic connection – the machinery crossed over to the Bhaglan provence of Afghanistan, travelling at turtle speeds to the badlands of Pakistan. From Jalalabad, the Water Master Classics reached Abbotabad, before crossing over to Uri. There was a break-down at Uri, with officials of Lawda [a gaggle of inefficient and extraordinary gentlemen] doing their utmost to help the Italian engineers to rev the engines up, which they thankfully managed to, this last Sunday.

The machines are presently stationed at an undisclosed location, near Boulevard [being hurriedly painted in cherry color with multiple plough design]. Soon the twin machines will be re-named – after either Sheikh Abdullah or Indira Gandhi – before dredging begins in all earnestness. Omar Abdullah is expected to be present during the first ten minutes of ‘Operation Dal Clean-up’ in a light-blue crisp Pathani dress, wearing a light note of Hugo Boss and gleaming tear-drop sun-glasses, picked up at Harrods on Brompton Rd. Sidekicks in one motor-boat, Omar with security paraphernalia in another. Media men, like mad-men trailing in a third one, without life vests. The Boulevard backdrop makes some stunning scenery. Zabarwan forests and the Dal shoreline. Maroon machines with crude ploughs. Omar and his easy elegance. Flash bulbs will freeze the Kodak moment. The Dal clean-up will never happen.

In the interim, the Pakistan High commission in New Delhi has decided to expand its Kashmiri invite list for next year’s Pakistan Day Celebrations after a wide spread discontent in the separatist ranks -- for being left out of this year’s tea party and dinner. There was a multi-course feast this March, which eye-witnesses verify, consisted of 101-types of Kebabs, each with a separate sauce in green saucers, laid out for the select few. This has caused much consternation and heartburn in Kashmir and a string of angry howls from the castaways, prompting the Pakistan High commission to amplify the list-of-probable’s for 2011. Infact invitations will be dispatched to every Mohalla Auqaf committee, so that there is no bad blood and Kashmiris continue to celebrate Eid, as and when Pakistan’s Rohat-e-Hilal Committee [Crescent sighting committee] decides.

Responding to Jamaat-e-Islami Kashmir’s latest salvo that Geelani long ceased to be a Jamaat leader, the ex-Jamaati-turned-Tehreek-e-Hurriyet boss Syed Ali Shah Geelani waxed eloquent, almost saintly: Even sans my Karakul cap, I can gather more people in my rallies than Jamaat-e-Islami and MUF leaders -- put together – can ever manage, with those fake Karakul caps of theirs. Show me one separatist who mocks our occupiers with such gems as Bharti-Samraj [Indian empire] in a way that I do without battling an eye-lid, the senior leader added for effect. And this latest fixation of calling me an octogenarian in newspapers is nothing but a scandal, by Indian agents – those clever tongues -- in the valley, who never tire to call me names. Come summer, I have an issue of such magnitude ready, which will make Omar forget Facebooking. That kid.

In between Farooq Abdullah, the slightly off-color cub of Kashmir’s original lion, has reiterated – for the millionth time – that Kashmir is the crown of India. Talking to a British newspaper Dr Abdullah said that he has only stated the obvious and shall continue to do so – in every non-descript south Indian town -- till good sense prevails upon the Indian policy makers and they make him the next president of the union of India. Farooq Abdullah’s election as the president of India, the old doctor said, referring to himself in third-person [something he is wont to, much like Gaius Julius Caesar] will automatically solve the Kashmir problem. The accession to India will be final, he concluded with an unusual finality, like John Nash, just after propounding the Game theory. What a genius? And we never knew. Pity.

Omar’s amnesty call to people who wandered to the ‘other’ Kashmir over the last twenty years has been taken rather seriously. The army now says more than 400 people are waiting to cross over to ‘our’ Kashmir. The only problem is that they may be hiding walnut-color daggers beneath their Pherans [cloaks].

The met department predicts that there is going to be a great heat wave this summer in Kashmir. Clerics are unanimous that end is nigh.

Happy All Fools Day


PS: Since humor is at a premium in our neck of woods, let us be clear that all situations in the April fool’s blog are fictitious and resemblance to any character –with or without a Karakul, Blackberry or dagger – is purely coincidental.