Tuesday, December 31, 2013

An ode to 2013

As December limps its way to oblivion, the timber of our deeds doesn’t smell all that great. The year has been a mixed bag. Just two months into the new year India hanged Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri prisoner languishing in Delhi’s notorious Tihar jail for 12 long years thereby satisfying the collective conscience of the nation, variously defined by sociologists as a massive bout of jingoistic orgy. Many thought the incumbent Congress government took the surprising step to dent the BJP’s blood baying calls and reap electoral gains in the run up to elections. While it did perhaps subside the Hindu right wing’s din of ‘Kill him, Kill him’, the electoral benefits that the ruling dispensation were seeking didn’t come. In fact the Congress party got reduced to rubble, mostly because of their own incompetence. The dead can jinx you from inside the tomb. Can’t they?

Come summer, Afzal was conveniently forgotten and it was time for music. There were heated arguments and much commentary on whether Kashmir was ready for an orchestra when the issue of mass graves and other serious matters like AFSPA were still unresolved. However Messrs Omar Abdullah and his golfer-turned-gobar-gas-minister-turned-Beethoven-lover dad Dr Farooq would have none of it. Along with a rather obdurate German ambassador Michael Steiner, displaying amazing skills of diplomatic over-reach, the concert was made possible on the same day the CRPF killed four people in Shopian. Zubin Mehta later sheepishly told a TV channel that he was sorry that people felt agitated because some of them were not allowed into the Shalimar garden. Next time, he vowed, it will be in a stadium and ‘mufat, mufat’ (Free, free) for all. No one told poor Zubin uncle that we didn’t bury a hundred thousand people to gate-crash at his concert ‘mufat’.

As autumn leaves began to fall, in strode Narendra Modi, the Hindu Hriday Samrath, grey beard perfectly clipped, hair transplanted and waxed in a halo, neat enough to hide a little pogrom in it. Looking keen in rimless glasses that his spin doctors insist he should wear at all times to give him that educated look, which he badly lacks, Modi set the cat among the pigeons with his talk on article 370. This singular article in the constitution of India has been a tiny mousetrap taken out every now and then by politicians to scare poor Kashmiris. It followed that regular hum on how important the statute is and all that jazz. In reality, notwithstanding the history of Article 370’s socio-economic utility, it has been politically defanged and reduced to a paper tiger. Modi was merely stringing the ruling establishment in J&K, as he has become wont to these days wherever he goes, and not surprisingly everyone took the bait.

Winter exposed our dark secrets. The high-profile chairman of the J&K Board of Professional Entrance Examinations turned out to be a garden-variety thug. The darling of the ruling cabal was given so many extensions, despite early-warning signals of his corrupt reputation, that he though it is fair game to sell the all-important common entrance test (CET) papers to the highest bidder. In the process he is reported to have offered some lower rung exam papers for a deg of 10kg fish gifted to him. God knows how many bush-league doctors and engineers must have trained, thanks to the corpulent Peer. Let's hope when he is old and out of jail, one of those terrible doctors treats him for greed.

Kashmiri firms also continued to do us proud in an infamous way. Someone discovered that our ‘world-famous’ spices were, well, ‘impure’, saddening a whole lot of Wazwan lovers from Anantnag to Uri. Carrying the motto of ‘Honest Spice’ and being awarded the Prime Minister's MSME Award for Excellence in 2009 didn’t deter the local firm from using colouring agents like Carmoisine and Tartrazine that can cause cancer, according to the Srinagar Municipal Corporation. Even our milk, that essential nutrient of life, we learnt, was substandard, misbranded and unsafe. The packaged milk, marketed as ‘Purity of Kashmir’ contained washing powder in it. With Jewish conspiracy safely ruled out, it looked like a clear case of Et Tu Brutus.

For much of 2013 poor boy Geelani was incarcerated in his Hyperpora house. The alibi given by the government was the age-old communist era trope: His release will incite violence. In the end they did let him out and boy, what a showstopper this 80-something man is. Mobbed and showered with flowers everywhere he went, people clambered upon walls to hear him speak, greatly embarrassing Omar and his viziers, who thought the only and the most effectively democratic way to fight this ailing, feeble man was to do what they are best at: Lock him up again. Lo and behold, Geelani was promptly house-arrested again. Democracy was saved again in 2013.

At the onset of 2014, the food we eat is adulterated, the milk we drink is contaminated and the air we breathe is still unfree. The only beautiful bit is the snowfall on New Year’s eve. The poetry of the earth, they say, is never dead.

Happy New Year, folks.

© Sameer

Follow @sameerft

Picture credits: Aehsan

Friday, November 29, 2013

On the wine route

When you step out of the quaint Larnaka International airport, the first sight you catch is that of deep blue seas meeting the bright sandy beaches under an incomparably brilliant sky. Heading out of the city towards Limassol (Lemesos to the locals), you first chance across the enchanting little village of Lefkara. Like Lenonardo Da Vinci, five centuries ago, you can’t help feel seduced by the exquisite handmade lace they make in Lefkara. It is hard not to buy some. Back in your car (and Cyprus is a place best explored by car) you marvel at the extraordinary landscape of the Mediterranean island, reminiscent of Plato’s God geometrizing: Low hills, almost perfect cones with leveled tops, valleys tapestried with fat tailed sheep, plots of verdure and a strange mixture of flavours – Biblical, Anatolian and Greek.

                                                         Wild mouflon, Cyprus

By lunchtime I was in Limassol, one of the most beautiful beach resorts positioned on the southern coast of the lush island. It only gladdened my heart that my accommodation -- Hotel Four Seasons -- was perched right on the gorgeous Amathus beach and for some highfalutin reason my room opened to the Mediterranean Sea. The pathway of the famous beachfront, also known as the Cypriot Riviera, was visible from the balcony. Stretching for more than 10 miles, the beach is mottled with some of the most interesting cultural attractions in Europe. After a quick mental math, I decided to spend as little time in my room -- no matter how vainglorious it made me feel -- as possible.

                                                  Four Seasons Hotel, Cyprus

Limassol has a population of less than 200,000. Stepping out on a pleasant November evening, I walked for more than seven miles until I got to the old town. The rhythm of life slows down here and suddenly you feel there is time for another cup of coffee, which you never find in London or Dubai. A mix of old and contemporary restaurants and pubs dot the marketplace. Cypriots love their Keo, a popular light straw-colored lager. Diners sat in the open air to nibble on their meze, small plates of flame-grilled, delicately spiced meats, and amazing cheese including halloumi (semi-hard, unripened brined cheese made from a mixture of goat's and sheep's milk). I had an ofto kleftiko, which is a Cypriot specialty, foil-wrapped lamb, baked with secret herbs in a sealed oven. Nearby a musician in blue suit strummed his Spanish guitar. A few domestic cats wagged their tails as mellifluous music flowed. 

                                                                Cat country

There are cats everywhere you look in Cyprus. Legend has it, and this a very well-versed Cypriot woman told me, that St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great imported hundreds of cats to Cyprus in the fourth century to rid her monastery (Monastery of St Nicholas) and the country of snakes that had infested it. Looks like the feline experiment was a success. The monastery – with lots of cats in it -- exists to the day. Cypriot cats were later immortalized by the Greek Nobel Laureate, Giorgos Seferis, in his poem The Cats of St Nicholas. I saw cats in solids and smokes, torties, patched tabbies, orange, marmalade and ginger colors. Cyprus is an island of cats and crystal clear waters.

It is also the land of fine wines with a tradition in wine-making that goes back centuries. Cyprus grows two main grape varieties – Mavro and Xynisteri – which are combined to produce the highly acclaimed sweet Commandaria, one of the world’s finest wines. I criss-crossed the piddly, idyllic Commadaria villages on the famous Cyprus wine route. The driver pulled over at some spots along the rolling hills covered with amazing vineyards that are harvested as early as July. By law Commandaria is aged for two years in oak barrels because of its distinction as the world’s oldest named wine still in production. Locals told me that an Ottoman sultan invaded the island just to acquire Commandaria.

                                                        Commadaria wine route

There are around fourteen villages on the ancient Commadaria wine route dating back to 1192 AD. (Around the same time when the third Crusade ended with Richard I of England and Saladin agreeing to terms for pilgrims visiting Jerusalem). I drove along the route from Limassol to Pafos to the Kolossi castle. Constructed in the 13th century, the fort is the only extant fortification belonging to the Frankish period. The impressive, square building, comprising of three floors was built by the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitallers) as the seat of the Supreme military commandment (Grande Commanderie). The castle was briefly occupied by Knights Templars, the most wealthy and powerful of the Western Christian military orders and the most skilled fighting units during the Crusades. The castle was later destroyed during the raids of the Mameluke tribes in 1525-26.

                                                              Kolossi castle

From Kolossi we stepped on gas to plantations where oranges, lemons and kiwi fruit grew. Cypriot farmers grow their citrus trees in long orderly lines protected by avenues of eucalyptus and fir. On higher ground where there is no shelter, the grapes on the vines are burnt brown by the sun. Limassol is surrounded by an abundance of citrus plantations filled with lemon, orange and grapefruit trees. I could smell the orange fragrance in the car long after we moved on. In the evening I walked on the beach, alone, for long hours after the sun was swallowed by the Mediterranean Sea, at a place where the waters first turned crimson and then a deep shade of scarlet. It is no secret that Cypriot beaches are not only beautiful; they are certified as among the cleanest in the world.

                                                            Sundown, Limassol

From the pine clad Troodos Mountains, where wild mouflons roam and cedars grow to the gem-like churches competing with stunning Byzantine frescoes, Cyprus has a sun-kissed spirit that is truly out of the ordinary.

Watch this space for more wanderings through the lovely land.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

London: Where the pulse of Europe erupts

Travel blog Part 1

I arrived to a cold Heathrow afternoon. Not sure if one must call it pure indolence or plain carelessness, which has become my hallmark now, I forgot to pack anything warm for my British sojourn. Not surprisingly the hair on my arm stood up as soon as I exited the airport’s air-conditioning environs into a chilly day in London. In the parking lot, while my notoriously carefree cousin revved up the engine of his subcompact Volkswagen Golf, the English poet laureate Betjeman’s words swirled in my head: And marbled clouds go scudding by/The many-steepled London sky. And here I was: Poorly clad but eyes wide open in the city of dreams.

                                         Welcome to London

I stayed in the London Borough of Southwark, very close to River Thames. It forms part of Inner London and falls under zone 1, which is the central zone where travel on an Underground is typically more expensive than journey of similar length in other parts of the city. The aesthetically beautiful historic core of London and several major attractions like the Westminster, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, British Museum etc fall in this zone. I, however, had a completely different reason to feel elated. My stay was close to a treasure trove: Bankside, London. Running from east of the Blackfriars Bridge to just a little distance before the London Bridge, it is a cultural minefield.

                                          Blackfriars Bridge

Although a well-to-do friend who lives in the posh St John’s Wood – nearest Underground stations are St John's Wood and Swiss Cottage --- calls Borough ‘a rough neighbourhood’, I must say that I feel quite at home near the Thames. I like it in the bustle. How does it matter to me if Sir Richard Branson and Imran Khan have quiet homes in St John’s Wood? Southwark is vibrant. It has a rich literary tradition with many novelists like Charles Dickens making it a setting for their works. The site of The Tabard inn (featured in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales), The White Hart inn and The George Inn (which still survives) are all located in Southwark.

                                          The George Inn, London, UK

Borough’s market is a gourmet’s heaven. As one of the oldest food markets in London, the wholesale market opens at 2am in the morning and closes at 8am. The retail market then opens at 11am and closes at 5pm. I got chatty with some local shopkeepers and gleaned a few interesting details. The present day market, an avuncular gentleman told me, was originally located near the London Bridge before it moved to the Southwark Street and Borough High Street just south of Southwark Cathedral. The market has been in existence since 1014. A thousand years later hawkers still sell fresh fruit, organic vegetables, artisan cheese, meat, game, freshly baked bread and pastries. I think Northfield Farm is the best for rare-breed meat, Furness for fish and game, Elsey & Bent for fruit and veg, and Flour Power City Bakery for organic loaves.  Curiously a magic scene in the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was shot near a fruit shop in the market some years ago. I bought two real pears and ate them by the Thames.

                                                     A shoppe in Borough market

A few streets from my cousin’s home in Isaac Way is the Red Cross Way. From a distance it appears like a Kashmiri astaan with a million threads and ribbons in multiple colours tied to its gate but as you go closer and peek inside you are met with the strangest of sights. The Cross Bones is an ancient burial ground that was once used as a graveyard for prostitutes. During those days sex workers were called Winchester Geese locally because they were licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work outside the jurisdiction of the City of London. By 1769, the homeless, paupers and those on the margins of the society began to be buried at the site. The practice was stopped in 1853. Cross Bones graveyard has now assumed a mystical importance and when it is evening tide -- on the 23rd of each month -- a small group of people come and hold a vigil. It is London’s tribute to its outcast dead.

                                            Cross Bones graveyard, Borough, London 

David Bailey, one of England’s best photographers, once remarked, if you're curious, London's an amazing place. Watch this space.


Sunday, September 08, 2013

Orgasmic at 19,000 feet

The unthinkable has just happened. Bayerisches Staatsorchester, or the Bavarian State Orchestra, has performed at the Shalimar gardens. The Orchestra was founded in 1523, almost a century before Nur-ud-din Mohammad Salim, known by his imperial name Jahangir, got the Mughal gardens made around 1620. It was iconic in a sense.

There was music. And turbulence.

Since last night both Ali Sagar and Akbar Lone, two of the special attendees who sat in the immediate rows behind their boss Omar Abdullah and Ambassador Steiner of Germany, are strung out. Reliable sources reveal that Sagar had difficulty sleeping at night in Khanyar and kept asking why Zubin Sahib didn’t sing a single song. Akbar Lone, meanwhile, was heard asking if the maestro would be interested in selling his conducting baton (Khabar haz kaeh di yi tuj). Known to conduct the state assembly in a polite fashion, who knows what a yawning Lone had in mind!

So here we had an acclaimed group from Munich, the musicians of which have been conducted by the great Mozart in the past, playing their brass, woodwind and percussion instruments under the mighty Chinars by the Dal. The ingredients were all there: A world-class ensemble. A posh crowd in attendance. Zubin Mehta, the great maestro, himself. And the famed Dal backdrop. Yash Chopra would have given up his entire stake in the Yash Raj Studios to be here.

It seems that the initial hullabaloo over the concert and how it would give out a wrong image of the Kashmir conflict to the world was quickly overshadowed by melody. This was it: Peace, clean and perfumed, like Gul Panag and Dr Farooq –- the dimpled-mademoiselle from Bollywood and the original disco-dancer from Gupkar. What does Geelani, that sour old man who refuses to shut his mouth even in house-arrest, know about the beauty of Beethoven? Pray, what?

Omar, the local emperor, looked classy in his ultramarine Khan dress. Ever since GQ put him on their cover, he has fallen in love with himself. So his hair is now silver-muted and the eyewear is chic. With the silk handkerchief firmly in the upper pocket of his Raghavendra Rathore Nehru jacket, he threw open the show with a soliloquy on 'new tomorrow'. (There is curfew in large parts of South Kashmir today)

Since no Bombay film is congruous without a villain, so the first set of baddies emerged from among the audiences itself. Most of Omar’s cabinet was caught gaping as if they were brought before a grumpy judge on charges of contempt of the court. Most of the attendees wore an expression that looked like a cross between listlessness and comatose. Whether the list of invitees mistakenly went to the cucumber growers association of J&K remains to be seen?

Oh and there was the dandy crowd from Delhi and Bombay too. They had been airlifted to the valley and included bored rich wives of industrialists in Jacques O sunglasses and second cousins of noted bureaucrats. The top brass of the army and police were also present. It was indeed a sight: Beethoven for the Bourgeoisie, of the Bourgeoisie and by the Bourgeoisie.

May be the highly anticipated peace concert was incomplete without Zubin uncle’s magical revelation, which has become a fashion statement now: I am a Kashmiri. Indeed. So is Rahul Gandhi and Nawaz Sharif. Nehru too was a Kashmiri. SRK too. Heck, everyone is a Kashmiri, even Deve Gowda and Ambassador Steiner. I’m sure Mustafa Kamal, who looked like he was water-boarded at the concert, must expect us to thank Sheikh Muhammad Abdullah for Article 370, which says that only state subjects can own land in Kashmir. Imagine if Mukesh Ambani’s wife, in her super-expensive gown, suddenly decided to be a Kashmiri.

Musicality of the Germans and Zubin’s conducting brilliance apart, there is a reason why so many ordinary Kashmiris voiced their opposition to Beethoven and Wagner in Srinagar. The simple fact is that when the state guns down a few Kashmiris in the afternoon, isn’t it a trifle insensitive for Dr Farooq and the crowd to tap their feet a few hours later? Notes of Haydn and Tchaikovsky in Srinagar cannot cloak the wailing of a mother in Shopian. Can it?

Excuse us for the impertinence of holding a parallel event. It was but a tiny attempt to tell the emperor that he has no clothes on. Give us Zarif Ahmed Zarif and ZGM slouched on grass at the Municipal Park any day over the fake pheran of Bollywood's dimpled-mademoiselle in Shalimar.

© Sameer

Follow @sameerft

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Monday, September 02, 2013

Guardian of language

The poet Seamus Heaney is dead. Globally known for the lyrical beauty and ethical depth of his words, the affable Irish hopped gentle into that goodnight, this week. The thing with writers and poets and people of literature is that they effortlessly place their beautiful voices deep inside our heads without our knowledge sometimes, leading us to mistake those thoughts as our own. Such intricately beatific relationships often last till the end of time.

Posterity will remember Seamus and his works. My children and their children and people a hundred years hence will read his poems, which are always full of finds. Seamus’ poems on peat bogs, an emblematic feature of the Irish conflict, shall stay etched on the canvas of time. His writings about the Irish violence included elegies for people who perished in the conflict. As they say art cannot ensconce itself in the attic if your roof is on fire.

However the real beauty of Seamus came out most vividly in his recollection of the Irish landscape and his boyhood days in the countryside full of farms and small towns, where things were old-world, nice and sunny; where Protestants and Catholics got along well before the world turned upside down and bombings began.

Often hailed as the most important Irish poet since Yeats, Seamus remained a country boy at heart, yearning for that pastoral simplicity. The author of such gems like 'Digging,' 'Mid-term Break' he was linguistically dazzling but minus any affectation. At the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in 1995, Seamus walked gingerly onto the stage and recited this lovely stanza:

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

I hope there is oodles of honey in the celestial jars of paradise.

Godspeed, Seamus.

Seamus Heaney
April 13, 1939 – August 30, 2013
Poet. Playwright. Nobel laureate


Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gool's blood

Ramadan is a particularly reflective time for Muslims around the globe. For more than 1.6 billion faithful it holds a deep spiritual dimension of compassion, consideration, forgiveness and obedience to the wishes of God. Kashmir is no different. It is atonement time in the valley also. When I was young, I remember vividly naats and daroods reverberating from the mosques around the Ramadan time. There was a beautiful melancholy and meaning to it -- simple folks, singing hymns to God at dawn.

So last night in a tiny nondescript hilly village called Gool in J&K there was some unpropitious exchange between the villagers and Indian soldiers. Media reports suggest that the BSF men objected to late night buzz around the mosque and roughed up the local Imam. Nothing much. Various monstrosities, from regular army to irregular task forces, have beaten up scores of Imams and devotees during those tough militancy years. This was surely no exception.

However the poor people of Gool decided to protest this bullying, these random acts of putting the locals through wringer and interfering in their religious duties. While they sure didn’t have Article 25 in the Constitution of India on their mind, which says that all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess and practise their religion, people nonetheless gathered to vent out their grievances.

We already know what happened next. The BSF went on rampage and a massacre unfolded. Innocent, unarmed and fasting village folk were mowed down by the foot soldiers of the world’s largest democracy. There are conflicting reports of eight to nine people dead. More than 42 people are injured. Why, one ponders, this excessive use of force? Why this mad bloodbath on hapless, simple, religious people? Is democracy a vampire that must drink blood to get an orgasm?

Oh, and there may be probes. By a retired or serving justice. That is a given. Shinde, India’s smiling home minister, may have already ordered one. God knows in the last 25 years not one man in uniform was touched by a bargepole. Since public memory is short-lived, by the time it is Eid, the authorities would estimate the people to more or less forget about it. Sad indeed it will be were we to obliterate from mind –- these adversities -- in our quest to justice.

I don’t know why we bother to wait for condemnation from Omar or his dad or Soz or some such. How does it even matter? Within the superstructure of occupation anything is acceptable: A boy plucked from his cowshed and killed in cold blood or an indiscriminate act of shooting on unarmed protestors. When Sonia ji throws an Iftar party with Dr Farooq and his son, Azad and Soz and Mufti and other compradors, falling over each other, sampling doner kebabs, the red sherbet won’t remind them of Gool’s blood. Rest assured.

© Sameer

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

You are in China

The Chinese are here. They came quicker than you can say Jack Robinson. And there isn’t much you can do once the dragon skates its way into your lair. Newspapers say that they have camping gear with them and that there is little the Indians can do but watch them from a distance. Imagine an entire 14 Corps, who knows, perhaps 40,000 soldiers, forced to watch the ignominy of 30 odd Chinese troopers having baked beans with their little Xuéyuán, or officer cadet, in canned tins.

The politicians in Delhi are clueless. Nineteen kilometers is a long distance. If Kashmir University was where the Chinese are actually supposed to be, then Pampore is where they have gotten. That is Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO). Nineteen frigging kilometers deep into J&K and the netas are busy talking about coal shit. The CBI director, who looks like a broke pahalvan, was doing some abracadabra with TV chaps yesterday. No urgency about the incursion, it appears. Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for thou art crunchy and good with ketchup.

So as things stand we now have a situation in Kashmir. There is a fourth claimant. It used to be the Indians, Pakistanis and Kashmiris. Looks like the Chinese woke up a bit late to suggest: What about us? Is it going to go four-fold from tripartite? Omar Abdullah, the viscount of Gupkar, wants India to send a clear message to China. Anyhow the security and policy mandarins in Delhi are in no tearing hurry. They whisper, “but it is one thing to read about dragons and another to meet them.”

Meanwhile at an altitude of 17,000 feet the fellows from PLA have erected a little signage in DBO. “You are in Chinese side,” it reads. Masters of irritating arithmetic, the idea is to provoke the Indians. Kashmiris meanwhile watch keenly, looking at the irony of it all. It must indeed be amusing to see the two creatures, in an eye-ball-to-eyeball situation trying to leave their scent marking and territorial claims on a landmass, which is clearly disputed in the first place.

As Chinese choppers violate the border with impunity and hideous Molosser dogs give some canine company to the PLA, the Indians continue to grow anger beards. There is an old Chinese saying ‘May you live in interesting times’. It appears that these indeed are interesting times, of course with a dash of fuckwittage thrown in!


PS: Since Pakistan bashing is flavour of the season, must one reason that jingoism was perhaps manufactured to poison our humanity. 

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Barefoot in Bombay

It is Earth Day and I am in Bombay. I have just stepped out of the UTV boss Siddhartha Roy Kapoor’s office after a candid chat with the guy, better known as actress Vidya Balan’s husband. Outside everyone is honking with mad abandon, perhaps in a quaint Mumbaya way to demonstrate a total, tone-deaf support for environmental protection.

Bombay is quirky. Has always been. A small wayward girl, in soiled clothes, is hanging dangerously onto a scooter. The rider, of course, has no knowledge that a naughty child is making a temporary swing of his Bajaj scooter in the traffic jam. A migrant woman, sooty and stout, with a frown on her is stringing a clothesline on the sidewalk, as if it were her personal space. Autowallas ride barefeet. Bombay is fascinatingly free for all.

Karan Johar is sipping his Starbucks Refresher. From the way he is quaffing from the transparent tumbler one feels he is 14 and not 40. There is a mischievous grin in between his slurps. He is silver-tongued and his answers are savvy. His secretary tells me that they have ordered Biryani from some posh place and he would like me to have some. I refuse politely. Biryani, sort of, dulls your nondiscriminatory flair.


I flew in to Bombay from Bhopal. It was my fourth flight in two days. The city has a distinct Islamic heritage, notwithstanding the current BJP government. There are old-world minarets and domes everywhere you look. It used to be a state before it was taken by the Union of India in 1949. Till 1929 the Bhopal state was ruled by a series of Begums, the last of whom Jahan Begum Sultan reigned for 25 long years.

The last queen abdicated in favour of her son, Hamidullah Khan, who made a lovely little palace for his daughter atop a hill overlooking the tranquil Lake Bhopal. His girl Begum Abida Sultan called it Noor-us-Saba. It is now a heritage hotel. Amitabh Bachchan was staying in one of its suites. I had a room of my own, overlooking a lush well-manicured garden. Lake Bhopal sparkled if you looked a little ahead. The central cascade courtyard took you back in time to a charming Nawabi evening. I must confess I felt a tad vain.


I was a little panicky when I boarded the little ATR 72, a twin-engine turboprop Jet Konnect flight. Never before had I taken one of those mini-flying things, that six-bladed propeller flight which makes a constant buzzing sound. Thirty odd passengers, including some foreigners, took the early morning plane with me. It was an expectedly bumpy, knobby, choppy journey but the excitement to finally interview Amitabh Bachchan, one-on-one, in his vanity van cancelled out my fear.

After he completed his scenes and changed into a Reebok Track Suit in his van, I was ushered in with two caveats. No political questions and please finish it in 15 minutes flat. Only if he likes a journalist or his questions, does Mr Bachchan extend the allotted time given. I was a tad nervous but pretended not to. I clambered onto the luxury van. There he was: Tall, regal and elegant. The Amitabh Bachchan of our childhood. The man himself. Graceful as the willow-bough over the streamlet weeping.

Big B stood up to greet me. He has been in the industry for 45 long years. He is considered an icon. People jostle to get photographed with his wax statute at Madame Tussauds in London. The BBC calls him the greatest star of stage or screen in the millennium. I slumped into a sofa next to him. Shall we start Sir? I said to break the ice. By all means, my boy, he chorused in his legendary baritone voice.

The interview went on for an hour and fifteen minutes. The megastar must have liked me.


When I landed in Delhi the previous evening I knew it was going to be a sleepless few nights in India. Consequently my seven-hour stay in the city of djinns was spent awake. Delhi has become a chaotic city of weirdos and perverts where gang rapes are commonplace and loutish behaviour is not uncommon. How did Ghalib’s Dilli become so lowbred, I wondered? Aabid, my alter ego in Delhi, was tied up somewhere. Even in the familiar there can be wonder sometimes, I thought.


Three days later, after a grueling schedule, the sight of Dubai’s dazzling city lights from the plane’s windowpane had a tranquilizing effect. It is home, away from home. I’ve perhaps gotten used to its tidiness, the sparkle, the Joie de vivre. The only thing that bothers me is my editor breathing down my neck, demanding the Bollywood stories, one after the other.


Tuesday, April 09, 2013

The Dream

I dream. Sometimes I think that's the only right thing to do 
~Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

Are dreams a peek into the unknown? I can’t really tell. I was lying sick in my bed on a beautiful April morning and I dreamt these slices of dreams, which stuck like barnacles to each other. There was this deer that walked upto me, from nowhere, pointing to its hind leg, suggesting something is amiss. Unsure of what to do I began to dream-talk to the deer, in a reassuring way, not certain if it understood my language. His actions suggested that the limb needed attention. Why have you come to me, I doodled in my dream? But when I patted the deer, lovingly, it smiled. 

At that my dream broke. I looked into my phone, lying by the bedside, to see the time. A flurry of messages greeted me. ‘I had a minor accident this morning and hurt my leg. Nothing serious except for torn pants and some scratches on my knee,’ read one. I sat up like a befuddled Penguin wondering if there is a thing such as psychic dreaming? Are we connected in a telepathic way? Are dreams guardians of sleep, as Freud said? What is this bond, this union? Makes me reckon if Edgar Allan Poe, that great romantic, was always telling the truth when he said ‘All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream.'


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Mayhem in March

The completeness of night’s silence is absolute in Kashmir. Earlier today another boy was put six feet under. Killed in cold blood in Baramulla by the Indian army. Apparently a small crowd was protesting against the hanging of Afzal Guru and driven by pure emotion, pelted a passing army patrol with stones. Since Kashmiri blood costs next to nothing, the armymen quickly got down, cocked their machine guns and sprayed the protesting kids with bullets, instantly killing a kid – Tahir -- in his 20s. Nothing much. His friends, too shocked to react, smeared his blood on their faces. Grown-ups wept. The army later issued a statement that they didn’t shoot the boy. Period.

The fact is that the army had no need to issue the statement. No one can touch them with a bargepole – statement or no statement -- since every military-walla enjoys total immunity in Kashmir and hence feels free to pull the trigger without caring two hoots about who is the line of fire. Hundreds of thousands have perished in Kashmir over the years and no one was ever punished. There are probes ordered and then there are commissions which sit. Nothing much happens. A prompt little denial completes the travesty.

There are banana republics and anarchic countries in the world where shit happens. Those godforsaken lands make no claims, at least, to call themselves the longest or largest democracy in the world. They don’t have 70 jingoistic channels to dismiss their ugly deeds. I don’t understand, for the life of me, how India -- a constitutional democracy – can get away with this charade in Kashmir. Who on earth kills kids for being impulsive or spontaneous? Does a democracy plunge a poisoned bayonet in your face because you show your fist to it? Pray how can sentiments be ever policed?

And they dug a grave quickly. And everyone cried bitterly. And furious sloganeering happened. And the poor mother and sister were inconsolable. And the father was delirious and his friends won’t sleep tonight. Innocent little details. And there might be restrictions from tomorrow till further orders. And the security grid will think that it is over but it isn’t. It is never really over. Memories are like warehouses. The injustices accumulate. And scream solders onto another scream bringing about a clarity that is both beautiful and bold.

There was a flinty, ferrety frown on the CM's face in the assembly today. All media faithfully reported the 'broke down' speech, as if he were a run-down car. History, however, is a great judge. It will mention the gouts of blood on the streets of Baramulla even if the TV channels chose not to.


1) http://www.indiaresists.com/

2) http://kafila.org/2013/03/06/mayhem-in-march-sameer-bhat/

3) http://kashmirtimes.com/newsdet.aspx?q=13299

4) http://www.thekashmirwalla.com/2013/03/kashmir-mayhem-in-march/

5) http://www.authintmail.com/news/opinion/mayhem-march

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Rendezvous with Ratan

This week Rajya Sahba MP GN Ratanpuri went to meet Geelani Sahib at Malviya Nagar in New Delhi, where the padre of Kashmir’s resistance has been confined to a solitary room by the mighty government. On the first day the honorable MP wasn’t even allowed to shake hands, leave alone meet up the ailing patriarch. Both Geelani sahib (standing on the doorway) and Ratanpuri (standing a few feet away) were not allowed to touch base. Like jinxed lovers.

After standing in the kotcha for a long time, and having made a dozen phone calls to several chaps in the higher echelons of power (being a lawmaker has its perks) Ratanpuri returned with eyes like disappointed lemons. Orders from the top, he was bluntly told, bar anyone from meeting the 83 year old. A feeble soul with a pacemaker, half a kidney, chronic asthma, cervical spondylosis and prostate problem is apparently a code orange level threat to the largest democracy in the solar system. What to do, Sir?

But Rantanpuri is not someone to give up so soon. After all he has been the editor of the quirky Urdu Daily Aftab in the heady 70s, not to mention his celebrity broadcaster days at Radio Kashmir, Srinagar. He persisted on Day two and finally, with a great degree of wriggling and contacts, managed to convince the paranoid security grid that he won’t really leak any of the radioactive substance that Geelani Sahib apparently emits.

He shall, he pledged, simply have a photograph taken with the old man on his new BlackBerry. Armed with a tablet (akin to the Ten Commandments…Thou Shalt not types) and under the watchful eye of the pot-bellied Delhi Police constables, the MP managed to sneak into the small room-cum-prison to meet up Geelani Sahib. Only to get an earful from the bed-ridden paterfamilias, who said what he always says without fear or favour -- with or without Haryanvi cops around -- that Kashmir’s right to self-determination is the final answer to all the questions.

Pic Credits: GN Ratanpuri, Rajya Sabha MP

Interestingly for the entire while that Ratanpuri spent by Geelani’s bedside, he was supposed to talk in Urdu only so that the eavesdropping Haryanvi constables could make sure that no nuclear secrets are changing hands (This being the trust deficit season just before the tourist season). Given the chaste Urdu that Geelani Sahib speaks and drawing from Ratanpuri’s long years at Radio Kashmir, where he spoke into the microphone like a velvet throat, one wonders how much did the poor cops finally pick up?

Did jargon like Haqe-Khud-i-Radyat, Aqwam-i-Mutehda, Bunyaadi Haq, Jazbe Ehsar, Qaabiz Afwaj slightly dull the heads of the special cell cops? We might not know their states of mind! However Ratanpuri, coming as he does from the pro-India camp, after updating his Facebook, revealed truthfully to the media, “Geelani Sahib was lying with pain in left side of his abdomen. With Ortho-collar around his neck he stood up to wish me.” Tells a lot about the grace and fortitude of India’s code orange level threat.

© Sameer

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


Last summer when I went to meet Geelani Sahib, the cops outside his home stopped me to check my credentials. I told them I am a journalist to which a polite Kashmir Police constable quipped, ‘Bub haz chu atyi, neero achev’ (Bub is there, please go in). Over noon-chai served in simple porcelain cups and a fresh Kashmiri bagel, I asked him pointedly about the futility of Hartals and why there could be no alternative to these shut-downs.

‘Any political struggle or revolution requires a fair degree of hardship. I know Hartals are leading us nowhere but what is the substitute. You give me one’, he responded. I tried quoting Gene Sharp, the Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare. Geelani Sahib nodded affably but the tiny smile on his lip suggested that he didn’t completely agree with me.

At an ideological level, India has lost the battle in Kashmir. The way Afzal's execution was carried out and the justification given did not cut ice with anyone in the valley. Frankly Kashmiris have evolved in the last two decades and we understand the falsehoods, media spin and associated crap. As a writer friend whispered, 'A 12 year old kid can see through the charade, the fraudulence of their arguments'. Curfews, clampdowns and curbs are the only skeletons left in the democracy's cupboard.

But what about Hartals? Are they regressive? Is this collective punishment? What is the substitute? I think the answer is not black and white. If Hartals had the power then something would have been achieved by now. However, Hartal, conceptually, does have some symbolic purpose but by employing it so often, we might end up wearing out the masses by making them talk their ears off. That is, Hartals shoud be used sparingly to retain their relevance.

Instead of Hartal, what we need is more introspection and more awareness about our issues. That is, encourage our generation next to seek education, travel (within and outside Kashmir) and write (blogs, poems, articles, satire, books) to facilitate this incredible quest for information and knowledge all over Kashmir. Once our population knows that the real power is in knowledge and scientific reasoning then you will see intelligent responses from people. Lets not cheer our kids into throwing stones, which are only met with bullets. Let them defeat the injustice through the power of ideas.

Books are the best way to bring awareness and it should be drilled into the collective psyche of Kashmiri boys and girls that they need to write about their life and aspirations. It does not need to be a history lesson. Kashmiri masses need to write on each and every subject, be it fiction, non-fiction, economy, sociology, psychology, religion, violence. There will be kids who would opt for medicine and engineering but lets cultivate a sense for liberal arts too. Unless and until Kashmir does not produce its own breed of bright journalists and writers, you can’t fight the onslaught of an uber-nationalistic Indian media. Kashmiris first need to write for each other and then globalise themselves.

Young people in Kashmir need to travel within Kashmir to understand and know what exists beyond Srinagar. Kashmir for Kashmiris remains divided in three territories: Srinagar, North Kashmir and South Kashmir. I understand that people can talk about Srinagar because it is the capital. However, what on God’s green earth does South Kashmir and North Kashmir mean? When did they become provinces of note within Kashmir? Where does North Kashmir begin and end? North of what? And the same for South Kashmir? The reality is that Kashmiris don’t know about themselves. South Kashmir and North Kashmir simply allows them to hide their ignorance.

So, lets fight oppression by educating ourselves and then educate others beyond Kashmir. It might be that we will not achieve anything substantive in the near term but at least we will not lose our youth to boredom and violence. And in the process, we might end up knowing ourselves better.

In the era of globalisation, we have to think global. We have to educate the world about Kashmir, its conflict and injustices. Lets have our cultural renaissance in a million different ways. Eight million people don't just define themselves by the same victimhood narrative. That makes us appear weak. We don’t need people to feel sorry for us. We require the global opinion to agree with us.

Hartals, I may venture to add, are too local to have any lasting impact. While we can pull our shutters down, every now and then, in protest, let us not stop in the tracks in our quest to excellence. The fact is that our ideological foe is formidable. The engagement has got to be multi-layered: Cultural, intellectual, philosophical and political. This is a long fight and there is no date for Azadi. Revolutions, by their nature, are infinite.

While there is no taking away from our deep and tremendous admiration for Geelani Sahib, and the beautiful cause he leads so courageously, I’d rather a kid draws a cartoon, lampooning the state, rather than see his coffin being taken away and his helpless mother, wringing her hands, holler: myaani potrov.

Let them cordon our streets and block the Internet. Our icons live in our hearts and minds and we shall strive to honour them with our pursuit of knowledge.

© Sameer

Sunday, February 10, 2013

We heard his neck break

So they hanged him after all. By the neck. Till he could exhale no more. “We heard his neck break,” one jail official told a journalist friend of mine. That was perhaps a mandatory detail. Exactly when the spinal cord snapped, that particular instant was essential for the collective conscience to be finally declared satisfied.

BJP notables soon declared victory on behalf of the hard Hindutva lobby. The soft part is taken care of by the grand old party itself. Rahul will soon smile those cute dimple smiles and a million tourists will fly into the valley in low-cost airplanes.

That there was no direct evidence in this case is no more an issue! That too has been settled now. How? Well, what is important: collective conscience of the middle class, judiciary, netas and media or the basic fundamental rights of an individual? Those for collective conscience say ‘Aye’, the nation asks, some douchebag TV host might groan; the ‘Ayes’ have it. Go figure.

So what does one make of the guy put to death on February 9, 2013? How did Afzal’s head become a souvenir as if it were some war trophy everyone wants to take home and show to kids? How did a regular guy who hummed poetry turn into the monster who had to be shoved into the democratic guillotine at all costs? As if solitary confinement for 12 years in a 16 ft by 12 ft death cell was not enough.

Why this secrecy, like burglars, one wonders? Why can Ghalib not kiss his dead father's face? There must be some civility even in death! Why can a family not be allowed to grieve? What does India want to prove: That by not letting his family visit him for one last time, Shinde becomes some tough nut? That, Sir, is a clear lack of dignity.

The answers are staring at us. There are times in the life of a nation when your defiant stare is perhaps a befitting response to the deception of what’s being thrown at you. In any case there is so much bad blood and dumb shit flying around that you don’t feel like to add to the chorus.

In 1989 lot of Kashmiri boys did things they never imagined they could do. Those who could not even climb a small tree scaled some of the tallest peaks in the world. No one knows precisely what happened all of a sudden -- back then. Who knows if it was a medley of reasons – spurred by a cataclysmic chain of events set off by another shocking hanging just five years back.

This February 11 would be 29 years since another Kashmiri, Maqbool Bhat was hanged in Tihar, where he lies buried. As if in a diabolical gesture Afzal was hanged just two days short of Bhat’s death anniv. His body too, in complete contravention of the universal statutory laws, was not returned to his folks. And it comes a full circle.

Promptly the press is muzzled and the clamp down begins.

Atoot Ang is not so Atoot after all if you have to hold it down by jackboots. This is state belligerence. Plain and simple. The fault lines are clear. The masks have slipped.

It is so utterly heartbreaking.

© Sameer

Follow @sameerft

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Rock the party

Buoyed by the huge publicity generated by the all-girl Kashmiri rock band, thanks largely to some anonymous online trolls, several grandmothers have gotten together in down-town Srinagar and adjoining areas to form a rock band of their own. The elderly women are going to showcase their special talent, doing Sufi versions of chakir, wanwun and other musical genres, to re-tell old wives tales and lovelorn songs of Yusuf-Zulaikha. It will be a modern and progressive band, mind you, with Sare' Apa as the lead guitarist, Zoon boeb at bass guitar. Hajra, who sells fish on Amda Kadal as drummer and Nabla at the keyboard. Progressive rock, Zaed bal style.

The grannies struck upon the idea to get into rock and roll because Hajra heard some ‘modern’ folk talk about the outrage caused by online threats to Kashmir’s ‘first’ all-girl band. How dare someone object to our modern sensibilities? Sare' Apa remembered that we used to have someone called Lal Ded who sang in the 14th century and then another songster Habba Khatoon, who penned exuberant lyrics in the 16th century. How come a few high school girls singing became an exposition to call us illiberal? The grand mufti, a government flunky, represents his posh cottage, and not the attitudes and beliefs of Kashmir.

While the old dyeds’ from down-town get their lyrics sorted out and a full fan page to them, with likes and comments to the boot, here is a little ode to the twisted logic: Expression indeed is sacred and music perhaps is the outburst of soul but this entire hullabaloo in our little vale about a high school rock band and dudes throwing fashionable jargon like misogyny around -- amounts to zilch. It somehow looks odd when you talk about freedom of expression for the rock band and deny the same expression to people who want to take a simple procession on Ashura every year. What is so sacred about bass guitars and so vile about allowing a students union in the Kashmir University?

From the way TV anchors are mentally masturbating the nation and by extension some Kashmiri homes (with access to cable TV) it looks like hippie counterculture has spread out from San Francisco into the bylanes of Shahri-Khas and is here to stay. Sure English-knowing Facebookers are offended, TV anchors are terribly upset, Twitter crowd is frothing at their mouths while the honorable CM is equally piqued. Pity no one was outraged when Ghulam Hassan Sofi, a musical icon of ours, died a few years back in abject poverty. Chana'e bar tal ravam racha'e aawaaz vach'e nou.

Jeans patloon, paanch-cappuccino-lavo-jaldi and torrent-downloaded music sure makes you a Koshur-angrez but what would perhaps help is an understanding of your own cultural ethos. Even a teeny weeny bit! Remember much before bored brats from Srinagar and elsewhere would make a quick dash to Gulmarg to celebrate New Year over Ho Hey by The Lumineers, we had a rich tradition of female singers like Naseem Akhtar, Raj Begum, Shameema Dev, Kailash Mehra, Jahan Ara Janbaz and Zoon Begum in Kashmir. Yes we squandered that tradition only to appear more phony and fake!

Sure the spirituality of Mehjoor, Abdul Ahad Azad, Wahab Khar, Rasool Mir and Rajab Hamid is uncool. Their Satanic Majesties Request by the Rolling Stones is cool. Ranbir Kapoor eating wazwan is uber-cool. Psychedelic and riff laden heavy rock is modern. All-girls bands are wow and ‘absolutely rocking’ if you throw in the word Sufi. So what we need is more and more Kashmiris -- boys, girls and grandmothers -- crooning the Five Finger Death Punch and Linkin Park's Burn It Down, preferably by the Zabarwan. And if you can't text message your friends to come for the concert because such communication is banned, try Facebook pages. Outrage is á la mode!

PS: All suggestions for naming the bujji-band from down-town are welcome!

© Sameer
Follow @sameerft

Monday, January 21, 2013

Blood on the Bridge

It was cold as stone in Srinagar. January is a numbing period in the hills. Kids often get frostbites. Many grown-up men and women had gotten mild goose bumps the previous night when a balding man in big, thick-glasses declared — with a diabolical grin — that he will let go off some invisible cards from his hand if things don’t go his way. No one could anticipate what was to come but the unmistakable wickedness in the voice, broadcast at 7:30 pm on Radio Kashmir, Srinagar was not lost to many.

Just like Rome sent Pontius Pilatus to tame the outpost of Judea, Jagmohan came with a premeditated mindset to put the fear of God in Kashmiris. A depilated bureaucrat, he was infamous for being Sanjay Gandhi’s sidekick, who threw Muslims out of Delhi’s Turkman Gate. That was during India’s Emergency. In his second innings as Governor, he was dispatched to the valley, all dusted and deodorized, to tame the great unwashed, the rank and file, in short anyone who attempted to look human in that January chill.

Before he got an excuse to throw his invisible cards on the floor, Governor Jagmohan decided to bare his fangs. Suddenly the administration started to come down hard on people. A new winter curse called crackdown was unleashed upon unsuspecting folks. The rude intrusion into homes, where women were sometimes violently pushed around and young men walloped for no reason, shocked Kashmiris to no end. It was the beginning of brutalization of an entire population. The poor men, who marched to Gawkadal that afternoon, protesting against house-to-house searches in Chota Bazar, had no idea what was to befall them.

Rearing its ugly face by imposing harsh curfew for weeks at a stretch, the administration meant to send a strong message to Kashmiris. The official machinery wanted to bust the popular sentiment by resorting to completely undemocratic, arbitrary and harsh measures. It only ended in hardening of stances and a churn of a different kind. Jagmohan became ‘Jage-Khor’, an ugly cartoonish caricature in the collective conscience of the citizenry. Of course he couldn’t break the spirit, forget about taming it.

While mini-massacres continued to take place at regular intervals all over the valley, what astonished many was the degree of obfuscation by India. No one in New Delhi’s intelligentsia ever uttered a word about Gawkadal. But for notable exceptions, the national press relegated the incident to inside pages. There appeared a method to suppress memories and remembrance. In the absence of any proper reflection, naturally there was no cognitive closure either. The images and recaps kept coming back. Willfully, people may attempt to move on with life, but flashbacks are often involuntary.

The truth is that no one was ever punished for the Gawkadal massacre. No enquiry was ever conducted. Twenty-three years on, no one has been charged. No CRPF walla, none of the authorities who issued the orders, not Allah Baksh (who passed away recently) and of course, not Jagmohan, the venal old man, who must be whiling his time away in some sarkari library in Delhi, content at the age of 87 to initiate a policy that sent 16-year olds to graves.

Two decades later Gawkadal stands as a silent testament to the depravation of Kashmir’s brutal oppression.