Saturday, August 20, 2011

McCain in Mughal Gardens

A little detail has fallen between the cracks ever since India started its latest march to a corruption-free state, led by Shri Anna Sahib Hazare, a piddly man, simple-mindedly honest. This revolution is cheered on by Lord Arnoub Goswami (confident that deliverance is well nigh), and the big media (how shamelessly they boo our revolution, hypocrites). Anyway, far from the maddening crowds of the Ram Lila Maidan, an unexpected visitor dropped by in Kashmir.

John McCain is a very important man. He came close to becoming the US president two years back before Obama spoke one night and DC was flooded with tears of hope, washing away both McCain’s aura and Fox News’ mental virginity. Another matter Barack proved to be all bark and no bite, notwithstanding the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite his failed attempt at the presidency, McCain is relevant and sits on the Senate committee on US Armed Forces, a hugely influential body.

So what brought him to Kashmir? On the grapevine in Srinagar, friends pick up that McCain discussed a basketful of issues with Omar, besides spending a few hours at GN Butt’s World famous (everything is world famous in Kashmir) Claremont houseboat. Previous guests have included US vice presidents (Nelson Rockfeller) and rock stars (George Harrison). The fact that McCain flew in straight from Islamabad (Pakistani capital, not Anantnag), his political secretaries in tow, has made it all the more titillating for the gossiprazzi.

Despite the government press release, the purpose of the meeting is somewhat unknowable. McCain is too high-profile to get on a plane to discuss environment and social issues with Omar. Hence the curio. We called up palace insiders, as we sometimes do, when info is hard to come by and gossip threatens to morph into a conspiracy theory. Geelani sahib, for instance, has already called the meeting an anti-Muslim ‘nexus’ between an evil America, Bharati Samraj and Jews. Why do Jews have to feature in the most unlikeliest of films, one wonders?

Be as it may -- flanked by his secretaries Christain Brose, Vance Serchuk and Paul Narian -- McCain, the iconic American hero, air-force commander, famously shot down in Vietnam in '67, POW, maverick, GOP stalwart, met Omar, son of Farooq Abdullah. The CM was flanked by (who else) Devender and Nasir Sogami. Here is a figmental account.

McCain: Harwan is green. Like Hanoi, Vietnam.

Omar [pleased]: Did you see the Royal Springs, Sir? My dad and I play golf in half-pants there. Nice place.

McCain: I hate golf. Churchill used to say, it’s a good walk wasted.

Omar [little embarrassed]: This is a great time to visit Pahalgam. If you like, Sir, my choppers are waiting.

McCain: I am told you are already facing criticism for blowing up money on helicopter rides -- to hill resorts. I don’t want an American angle to it.

Omar: The opposition here is petty. They gang up with the separatist leadership on me. I have friends. Can’t I take them to see my fief? Please tell me, Sir. Can’t I?

[Devender and Nasir nod in affirmative, suggesting Omar is right]

McCain: I heard the Mirwaiz on FM this afternoon. Retainers in the houseboat said he is a big hit.

Omar [somewhat cheesed off]: No way. He is only popular in areas where Azaan from Jamia Mosque loudspeakers can be heard. In any case radio was our idea.

McCain: Your idea. But why make your foes popular?

Omar: They tend to get very grumpy during house arrests. FM kept one faction of the Hurriyet busy, at least.

McCain: Splendid. What about the other faction? Someone said the old man is more well-versed in religion.

Omar: Well he is bit of a firebrand, Sir. By comparison Anna Hazare appears like a jester in front of him. One cannot trust him with a mike. It is like offering carrots to a rabbit.

McCain: You keep pulling these rabbits out the hat, don't you? Did you switch off mobiles and internet in Kashmir on India’s Independence Day?

Omar: Communication is a distraction sometimes. People had other options. They watched Doordarshan. Flower petals falling on my head as I tugged on the flag halyard. We wanted everyone – adults and kids – to feel patriotic.

McCain [with a sardonic smile]: Don’t they call you the Twitter kid?

Omar: Dad says kids born in palaces should play with real helicopters.

© Sameer

Thursday, August 11, 2011


Eleventh day of Ramadan. Middle East. A glade of earth, as extravagant as it is affluent and filled with contrasts. I don’t know if the mere act of keeping a fast cleanses us spiritually. I don’t even know if it really makes a difference. Yet there is something utterly graceful about resisting what comes naturally to humans. Trying to stay un-moored, even if for a month, in a world and age filled with seduction is in itself an elegant thought.

A lot of charity happens around here this time of the year. Those wearing subtle notes of Yves Saint Laurent fragrance sit with poor workers, smelling sweat, straight from their construction sites, to break the fast together. All the world's racism and xenophobia -- so inherent to humankind -- evaporates, by some magic. I like it when the distinction between the haves and the have-nots fuses in some beautiful symphony.

As such life is never easy. We seek to make it pliable, only to sit back and let things take their own course. We sashay past situations. We get attached to memories, places, people. Often enough it takes extraordinary courage to be in the saddle. On occasions, time slips peacefully by, in a haze of relaxation. Yet at other times, cheer, like a clandestine lover, slips away quietly, from the back door, tip-toeing. Without the sentimentality of a poet.

© Sameer

Saturday, August 06, 2011


Come September, Srinagar shall transmogrify into Jaipur. The Directors of the DSC Jaipur Literature Festival and Teamwork Productions will descend upon Kashmir to organize an ‘apolitical dialogue’ concerning literature. Makes one reflect, if only in self-amusement, how does one de-link art and literature from politics? And how do you hyphenate the two in a space as political as Kashmir.

News stories from India say the gala literary event will be spread over a couple of days in Srinagar and invites are currently being printed to be dashed off to prominent Kashmiri writers and several Indian authors from the celeb-set. Reports go as far as to suggest that Salman Rushdie will come, which may quite frankly be plain attention-seeking. Blasphemers seldom walk into battlegrounds.

Sanjoy Roy, producer of the fest states that, "The Harud festival will be a great addition to our existing literary and arts festivals in India. It is a privilege to be creating this program with the backdrop of Kashmir and its legacy of literature which has a history of over 2,500 years. We strongly believe that India's multi cultural ethos needs to resonate across the world."

It is astonishing to note that while the organizers scramble about to provide a platform to writers, they choose to either forgo or overpass the silenced tragedy of Kashmir. Is this an effort to mock at the muffled dissent that is so commonplace in Kashmir? When Kashmiris, by and large, cannot express themselves freely, how can a literary fest engage them in a meaningful way?

Talking of a literary tradition that dates back two millennia and attempting to kick-start an apolitical cultural dialogue in Kashmir is akin to lobbing a joke grenade at an audience that is too terrified to laugh. How can one talk about the freedom of speech under the sun when some poor kid is tortured to death at night? Why can’t people be allowed to express condolences, leave alone ideas? Unless the expression is truly free in all forms, how can one celebrate writing and arts?

From times immemorial literature and politics have informed each other. Plato, the great Athenian philosopher wrote Protagoras to use conversation between characters only to make political statements. As Olga Tokarcruz, one of post war Europe’s finest essayist’s writes, ‘There is no literature that can remain nonpolitical in this broad sense of the word, apart from romance novels or pulp fiction, of course. Quality literature, literature that wants to achieve something, is always political.’

Not surprisingly comparisons will be drawn with the Palestinian Literary festival (PalFest). Indeed Harud is going to be nothing like that. The PalFest, that seeks to assert the power of culture over the culture of power, to paraphrase the Late Edward Said, was shut down in 2009 by Israelis in East Jerusalem, prompting the British columnist and writer Jeremy Harding to remark that all cultural events which take place in areas of contention have political undertones. "Talking about what literature is and what it means in a fraught political situation is the most honest thing we can do,” he added.

One may forgive Times of India, once a wonderful newspaper, now reduced to shallow yellow journalism, for headlining Harud as ‘Kashmir Valley turns a page, starts a literature fest‎’. A celeb-set of authors dissecting oral traditions of Kashmir and band-pather et al, complete with a musical jig by amateur artists – with drums and guitars and microphones – playing to a young crowd swaying to them indeed makes great headlines. But it also sends out a message. There is normalcy. While there isn’t any. What is on display is invented normalcy, or semi-normalcy, if you may.

Kashmir is a place where the crises of legitimacy stares you in the face. There are important questions to be answered. Who will be excluded? Will the seditious Arundhati Roy qualify as a speaker, given the apolitical theme of the fest? Will Fatima Bhutto explain culture to young Kashmiris in her American accented English? The White House spokesperson pronounces Pakistan better than her.

If one were to scratch beneath the glossy image – the lush lawns, imposing mountain backdrop, artsy types in Fab India Kurtas, the tourist brochure Dal, good-looking people, famous authors’ with misty Kehwa cups in front of them, Farooq Abdullah's collection of exotic shawls, coffee house perennials – you get the real picture. It is somewhat odd and sadly does not make good headlines. Parents waiting for their jailed children. War orphans with eyes welled up, another Eid without their folks. Mass graves. Section 144.

Every man's memory is his private literature, Aldous Huxley, said one evening. Our memories, over many Haruds, are brimmed over with injustice.

© Sameer