Sunday, February 20, 2011

Shooting the breeze

A balmy Sunday noon in Delhi. A fortnight later it shall be oven hot. Bus conductors shall misbehave with all and sundry as mercury inches further north. Fat policemen will get more temperamental over the next two weeks. Mosquitoes will drink middle-class blood and plump out. Some scandal will surface. But that is for later!

This weekend Peahens prance about P Chidambaram’s 19-Safdarjang villa. Two white ambassador cars pull up. A journalist and a peacenik step out and walk towards the bottle-green lawn. The maalis [gardeners], caressing pansies and Icelandic poppies suddenly jump on their feet and bark: Salaam mem saab, salaam saab. [Greetings]. Saar waha chaun mein bêthe hai [The boss is sitting in the shade, over there].

PC, 65, has dyed his hair charcoal black in stark contrast to the elegant Radha Kumar’s coiffure which is muted silver. Dilip wears peppery hair. He is 67. Women don’t age. In any case it is ungentlemanly. The twain shake hands with PC and sink in cane chairs. A thirteen-lined squirrel scurries past.

It makes a chittering squeak.

Radha: Lovely creatures. Squirrels.
PC: Sharp teeth, madam, they can bite.
Dilip: They have red squirrels in France. Mostly active in mornings.
PC: Ah! Your French ways, Dilip. Did you know there is a Kashmir flying squirrel?
Dilip gesticulates in negative.
Radha: I think the Kashmir squirrel is under threat from loss of habitat.
PC: Everything is under threat up there.
Dilip: Knock on wood, Sire, I foresee long queues in Kashmir.
Radha: We read hope in between the lines.
PC: Panchayat polls are around the corner. May there be lines and queues on all hill tops.
Dilip: The Azadi gang may break the formation.
PC: Heck, why can’t you get them talking?
Radha: I emailed Geelani.
PC: Hope he checks his mails, regularly. Does he have an email?
Dilip: Yes.
PC: Expectedly.
Radha: Yasin is yet to get back to my mail.
PC: He is the mildest of them all. Get him to chat atleast.
Dilip: Apparently he is preparing to stop eating for a day.
PC: Oh, what happened to him now? Is he upset?
Radha: Gandhi-giri.
PC: Impossible blokes. They will drive us nuts, I swear.
Radha: But why have you barred Geelani from exiting Delhi?
PC: Our snoops saw him writing something in furious Urdu in a garden bench in Delhi. Who knows he might read the riot act in Kashmir. So we decided to extend his holiday here.
Dilip: Fantastic idea. Hyderpora is no Tahrir, after all.
Radha: Farooq was helpful. He made an appeal.
PC: Appeal to?
Dilip: To the Azadi bandwagon. To unzip their mouths.
PC: Well, the grapevine is that no one takes him seriously in Kashmir, not the least separatists.
Radha: We made some serious recommendations. Did you have a look?
PC: Enjoy the winter noon, Radha. What is the squirrel-like hurry?

© Sameer

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Freedom's first morning

You have freedom when you're easy in your harness.
~Robert Frost

Revolutions are heady. It is many battles fought together-- for soul, for dignity, for liberty. Nothing matters more than the collective will of people. And their aspirations. You need no guns and tanks to spawn it. Courage and concord are very potent arrows. Good enough to knock down mighty powers riding high on pelf. A tyrant’s subjugation lasts only as long as the fear remains. When people loose fear, thrones shake. And eventually crumble.

There is a certain romanticism about bandying with one’s countrymen. Burning camp-fires under open skies. Huddling with friends on cold nights upon dirty pavements. Waking up groggy to a balmy sun and brushing your teeth with the index finger. Doing congregational prayers in jeans and tees and playing songs of bounty and yearning. The morning of freedom is often sweet after dark nights of injustice. Like first love.

The times, they are a-changing, the songster Bob Dylan crooned yonks back. Indeed. Times are transmogrifying. The youth are fiercely tuned in. Vigilant and unarmed, they need no leaders. The street is their battleground. Audacity is the new spokesperson. Tankfuls of soldiers are irrelevant. Egypt displayed it so beautifully. An indelible impression was cast on everyone who followed the peaceful spectacle – on TV, internet and over radio stations.

Ofcourse freedom is never free. Three hundred brave souls fell to the bullets of Mubarak’s thugs. But people remained steadfast. There is something extraordinary about the human will. It stays indomitable and unbendable in the face of great adversities. Confronted with threats and warnings, it refuses to cower down. There was confusion and false-starts in Tahrir square. Everyone wept during roadside prayers. Then like a shy bride, freedom came.

The bright, youthful citizenry of Egypt made the impossible, possible. Perhaps every generation needs to exorcise its ghosts, some of whom are imports from the past. To borrow a Jeffersonian maxim: Every generation needs a new revolution. In 2011 it is montage revolution. It happens by word-of-mouth, by mass mobilization, by text messages, by placards, over laptops and on Al-Jazeera.

When they blared wild honks in Cairo, thousands of miles away, euphoria gripped Kashmir. Like the Egyptians, we are a very emotional people. And we are subjugated. Whether or not we draw parallels betwixt Cairo and Srinagar, whether or not we manage to pull it off in our lifetimes remains to be seen.

As they say we shall see.

© Sameer

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The symbol

The year is 1984. On a crisp February morning the space shuttle Challenger made its first landing at the Kennedy Space Center. It was a heady time in Kashmir too and Farooq was at his flamboyant best, ruling his fief, riding to Gulmarg on a thap-thap motor with the poor DIG trailing in a police jeep, pure Bollywood style. Little Gujjar girls hiking the alpine forests, wet firewood on their delicate heads, would stop in their tracks to see the prodigal scorch rubber. That kind of peaceful times.

In Delhi a mild-mannered man was being walked to the gallows. Convicted of killing a CID inspector in Kashmir, a claim as contested as Darwinism, Maqbool Bhat was to soon turn into folklore. His life was no less than a Bollywood potboiler. Unprivileged, idealistic, strong-headed, philosophical, bank-looting, freedom seeking, jail breaking, controversial but avowedly secular. February 11 was to change him into a resistance icon forever. Somebody like Che Guevara. Briskly, with the gait of a soldier of fortune, Maqbool climbed the last steps to his gallows-tree. Trehgam was a distant cry. Tihar loomed.

Five miles further uphill from Kupwara, the northern most township of Kashmir lies Maqbool Bhat’s picturesque little village. Everyone is poor in the hamlet, including the family of Bhat. Children often aim at walnut trees in the neighborhood, sending thick clubs flying on bunches of green walnuts. The boys then collect raw walnuts -- that lie scattered everywhere -- in the loose ends of their Pherans. They rest on some mound, away from prying eyes, to remove green husks, hurriedly extracting the kernels [gooj]. Hands often get stained in the process. Very pastoral.

Exactly twenty seven years after their favorite son was hanged by India -- a journalist friend told me -- they still sweep a little, low-ceilinged room that they still call ‘thotha’s room’. Thotha is dearest in Kashmiri. Many young men who crossed over to Pakistan in the late 80’s were quite appealed by the folksiness and lore around Bhat. Though coming from a peasant stock, Maqbool Bhat was educated. He went to St Josephs School in Baramulla and continued his studies in Pakistan when he first crossed the border clandestinely in 1966. Quixotic in life, death helped bolster the romance about him.

He is the first Kashmiri hanged by India and hence evokes very strong pro-Kashmir sentiments in the vale. There aren’t too many pictures of Bhat available. India did everything to efface him. None of his belongings were ever returned to his folks. Universal statutory law would demand the body to be returned to the family. That never happened. They have two graves in Srinagar and Trehgam dug for him.

From among the top leadership of Kashmir, separatists as well as unionists, Maqbool Bhat’s legacy is the simplest and perhaps the poorest.

© Sameer

Wednesday, February 02, 2011


Inexplicable things keep happening in our stomping ground. When everything looks calm and peaceful, mysterious men appear from nowhere and slaughter a few blokes, before disappearing into the dark of night. Only the dead know who their executioners are and corpses seldom speak. Nary a word. Friends and family weep quietly on sad evenings, while neighborhood dogs bark in a fierce readiness, outside. Anonymous assassins roam the streets.

The blame game had already begun. Two poor girls have been killed in cold blood in Sopore. Kashmir’s apple plot is cherry red again. So many times the dwellers of this tiny township have been at the receiving end of a lot of shit. Bludgeoned and beaten, over and over again, they are now faced with a faceless foe, which knocks at the door at sundown and even as you stand up to answer it, a barrel stares you in the face. Then there are merciless gun-shots.

The cops quickly declare the killer outfit. Another matter two years after the Shopian double murder they are still at pains to explain how grown ups went down under in ankle deep water and died. Talking about the latest killings, the CM, wet behind the ears, tweets about his state of sorrowfulness in a spate of incessant tweets in which he also discusses how charged he feels about test driving a new Range Rover. The separatist bandwagon condemns but stops just short of passing the judgment of conviction. Too little, the Twitterati boo.

The tragedy of it all is that too many people appear to be caught up in the contretemps here. The state brutally represses people and mocks at their defiance. It indulges in psyops, defames the leadership and attempts to confuse. The Azadi association on its part is pusillanimous when it comes to blowing whistle on its own treasonists. Insincerity of virtue is perhaps a side effect of the conflict.

As for the online passengers: Small boats sometimes carry dubious cargo.

© Sameer