Sunday, June 25, 2017

Eid has finally come

Eid has finally come. It always comes. In the best of times and the worst. Yes we will polish off the finest bakery in town and break bread with family. That's what festivals are all about. Getting together with loved ones and shutting yourself off all the absurdities of this cruel world. Yet in a place like Kashmir where a never-ending conflict hexes the lives of almost everyone, one can't totally afford to disconnect with what goes on around us. It is a jinx that refuses to cast loose. Like Tasrup of the old times. However much we go away from it and pretend to be like everyone else: flashy mobiles, big homes, cafe shops et al, it comes back in the evening.

Not a day goes without stories of some new variety of suffering emerging. Rebels are now charred so bad, even in their death, that no one is able to tell who is who. A cop is lynched on the most auspicious of nights. Till last week we thought only those lowlife retards in mainland India hack people to death. Even the sky doesn't turn red now. Vazul nub, grandparents would often say. Lore had it that if someone died accidently, a drowning, mayhap, the evening sky would go crimson over Srinagar, as if God was galled at what was happening with his devout back on earth. But these are different times. As the Bard would say 'Tis the times plague, when madmen lead the blind'.

I'm convinced that we are addicted to kharab haalat. Our addiction to violence has a political context that exposes our vulnerability and at the same time reinforces our fortitude. We know that TV news is shit (one feels so repetitive to say it now), yet we devour it en mass and feel more pessimistic about ourselves. Someone recently asked me why Kashmiris care about what some compromised TV anchor has to say on Prime Time. I replied that given the lack of reading culture in Kashmir, people are addicted to TV. Violence is pain that one learns to internalise. All these images of coffins after coffins, 'declared brought dead' web headlines, disfigured young boys, graves, slogans, funerals, are painful.

There might be an element of mass hysteria to it but ultimately, when a sister wrings her hands as her brother's corpse is taken away (rebel/non-rebel is besides the point), it is pain, plain and simple. A mother crying in the crook of her arm at night is not her pain alone. It lacerates everyone's soul. So how does a society, collectively, deal with this? No one knows the answer. We just know the short-cut. We have all gotten addicted to something that takes away the pain. That might be one reason we care about what some Sanghi KP has to disparagingly say about us on TV. Be as it may, we need to get away from the nuisance. Also we must stay clear of political hookers who lurk around in our neck of woods by the dozen. They will sleep with anyone who pays them a price.

Kashmir has endured a lot. We need to get a handle on our grief without allowing any toff to appropriate it for us. It's hard to live normal lives in a conflict. We just need to look around and honour the dignity and countenance of those who have lost their loved ones. Kashmir may have a dozen maslaks and firqas but after all that we undergo, what must glue us is empathy and love and tolerance towards each other. To all my fellow compatriots back home -- from Nowhata to Nishat, Banihal to Bandipora and all the valiant villages and vicinages in between: Eid Mubarak


Friday, December 30, 2016

2016 – Our year of scars

The year began on a somber note. The king was no more. Mufti Sayed’s ascension to throne had come at a great price. He bartered his party’s balmy image to enter into an alliance with the Sanghis – quite a treacherous thing to do in the context of Kashmir, given the generic disgust people have for the BJP. Yet the astute player that he was, Mufti went ahead with the alliance, hailing Modi as ‘toofan ka admi’. When the CM tragically passed away, fewer than 3,000 people turned up for his funeral. The PM, known to spend more time air-dashing than in the PMO, didn’t come for the last rites. You see, one may be top of the food chain but often enough in history, when you go against the grain, you endear yourself to no one in particular. Your own people disown you, while India’s PM has much more pressing matters to attend to.

As his heir-apparent, Mehbooba Mufti, the lady who always wears green scarves, was anointed. The PDP flag is also green. Call it symbolism, optics, implied subliminal comparison to all things Sabz. Be as it may, some showmanship emanated before Miss Mufti formally sat on the throne. While some alluded it to narazgi (a typical Kashmiri trait) with Delhi, others said that she was genuinely upset at how RSS (those cunning half-kickers) were hijacking her father’s grand vision. For a while it appeared that she might actually take the moral high ground and renounce the hot seat but soon fat politicians convinced her that only the naïve give up power so easily. In due course Mehbooba became the first woman CM of the state. Her party was over the moon but the honeymoon was not to last. Less than three months later, Kashmiris rebelled, wholesale.

Just after Eid ul Fitr when many of us attempted to plot our holidays, news came that the inevitable had happened. In no time sloganeering started, whatsapp groups went in near-frenzy and pictures of a dead rebel – Burhan Wani – went viral. It appeared as if someone from the state police, perhaps accompanied by the army, had flung open the gates of hell. Impromptu protests erupted all over the valley. Everyone wanted to show up at Tral. One was at pains to explain the outpouring of extreme emotion for this 20-something, dapper lad from a nondescript village in South Kashmir. God knows if it was a mix of his swashbuckling social media persona or plain chutzpah that animated the masses. Or was it our collective aspirations coming to the fore? In any case, post-2016, no one would remember Tral for its dry fruits and sweet springs. In the estimation of public, it has become Burhan’s village, his final resting place. Legends endure.

Caught totally unawares, Miss Mufti’s government acted on expected lines: i.e. by bringing on the full might of the security apparatus upon protesters. Bloodshed followed. Scores lost their lives. Thousands were injured. Many more were arrested, sometimes on the mere suspicion of raising their fists. The summer witnessed deadly effects of a particularly debilitating weapon in the state’s armory. Pellets became a bane. Hundreds of young men and women were directly impacted by these sharp projectiles fired into public gatherings, sometimes blinding those at the receiving end. When July melded into August, no one actually realized. There were just too many funerals. Such seething anxiety. Too much storminess. A muffled solitude overhung Kashmir. Each sleet of pellets carried more blindings with it.

A crippling strike brought things to a grinding halt. The writ of the state was challenged in a somewhat donnybrook fashion. Surrounded by sad-looking guards, the government literally crumbled. Apart from issuing orders that varied between banning newspapers, snapping internet, blocking mobile services and announcing curfews (none of which brought it any approbation), there was nary a trace of governance. More than five months on, the valley opened and shut as per the ‘calendar’ issued by Hurriyat. All along, Miss Mufti alternated between keeping the pro-freedom leadership in jail and under house-arrest. Nothing seemed to work. Initially appeals were made to kids to attend school. That soon changed to warnings for teachers. All that the CM desired, her sidekicks insisted, was a shot at peace and happiness. Happiness, like peace, cannot be fabricated; it must ensue. One must have a reason to be happy.

When the phone lines went dead and newspapers were outlawed, 2016 felt like 1989 over again. Across villages protests raged on. The distant songs came in mockery of the pounding of hearts. The hills, it seemed, were singing and the city was irate. People were besides themselves with rage. TV anchors in Delhi, shrill and ultra-nationalistic even on a dry day, were unable to discern the fury. Their talking heads tried to offer several clumsy reasons about what was going on in the ‘atoot ang’ . Since TV as a medium is shallow and provides little scope for depth, the channels entirely failed to explain the spontaneous nature of the uprising. Aspirations -- and Burhan was simply an adjunct to an aspiration -- are often about the soul. And the soul cannot be heard.

When the tempest passed, creatures of various stripe began to crawl out of the woodwork. Social media sermons -- about the futility of resistance -- appeared in all earnestness. As autumn morphed into winter, newspapers started lending space to preachy views. While dialogue and conversation is the hallmark of any civilized polity (and should be encouraged), it is a little rich that some of us go into hibernation when the tide is high, only to re-emerge afterwards to call the survivors both frivolous and irresponsible. You should be screeching with laughter, the argument goes, because if India seeps and bleeds you, it also gives you Jio and IAS. Such counterfeit countenance is not surprising, but let’s not forget that we are in this together and our feet are equally wet.

To paraphrase the late Aga Shahid Ali, the cold testifies to the earth’s fidelities, stronger in Kashmir than anywhere else. We are currently in the lap of winter with frost and freeze upon us. It is only human to want to sip more noon-chai and clutch our kangris more tightly than a CRPF-walla can ever latch onto his pellet gun. When the snow falls from a dreary sky, lest we forget, there shall be many hundreds of eyes that cannot see the flakes. And some of us, full of pep this time last year, are not alive to witness the stilled beauty of a mid-winter’s night. There are certain moments in the life of a nation that are at once reflective and melancholic, just like the winter. And while there is honor in staring down a tyrant, everyone deserves a spring.


Thursday, October 06, 2016

Our many squandered songs

Every time I made an attempt, they sent me back.

I was in Kashmir recently. As has happened many times in the past, I often get caught up in the middle of political upheavals. There were no signs of any impending disaster. As with earthquakes, no early warning system went off.

Boulevard — that lovely drive by the Dal Lake that is at once romantic and old-world — was abuzz with tourists, huddling together, pouting, and taking selfies with wooden houseboats in the backdrop. A faint scattering of lights had begun to appear on Kohi-Maran. A little ahead, a Kingfisher, a common sight in Kashmir, darted obliquely into the lake, at a fish, it was perhaps espying.

Eid passed off tranquilly. The bakery smelled of heaven. Food was plentiful. There was much socializing. I met my friends. Neighbours came over. Some relatives called. Several invitations were extended over phone. While drawing up plans for a picnic in the hills — complete with camping gear — I was suddenly reminded of a distant uncle. He lived in another part of the town and had been unwell. In the excitement of being home, and getting around, uncle had escaped my memory.

On the second evening after Eid, I rang him up. He didn’t answer. I called up his son, who picked up the phone. He sounded pleased and asked why I hadn’t come over. A shade embarrassed, I apologized. I understand the social mise en scène in Kashmir. People feel bad, doubly so, if you come from foreign lands, and don’t visit them.

I asked about uncle. It is bad news, he replied. Uncle is bedridden, suffering from bronchial asthma. A chain smoker (it was once rumored that he wanted to marry a tobacconist’s daughter simply because of an allure of free tobacco supply for a lifetime), his lungs had finally given up at 65. It was chronic, his son said, and father gets severe attacks of coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness at night. I promised to drop by. Uncle’s face kept flashing in my head. Even in my thoughts, he had a cigarette dangling on his lip.

Suddenly I wanted to see him right away. If I were abroad — as I mostly am — I would have jumped in my car and driven off to see someone, but Kashmir has its own cultural circumference. You may go unannounced to a friend or a relative but to turn up at someone’s home at night, just like that, might make you a social bumpkin, an awkward. I decided to wait it out till next morning.

This must have been the same time that first political tremors were being felt in the valley. All at once a flurry of messages started coming on my phone. This popular rebel then (now almost a cult figure in death) but still a Himalayan Robin Hood at that instant, was killed. ‘No way — I thought.’ I expressed my incredulity to a journalist friend on whatsapp. Must be a rumor, I tried to sound reasonable. Next he sent me a gory picture of the rebel’s body.

It was the young lad — in his early 20s, lips a little ajar, as if insufflating his boyhood to whoever had clicked his body. The sharp lines of his long stubble were perfectly aligned. He lay lifeless on a police stretcher, photographed at an unflattering angle — perhaps in a deliberate effort to denigrate his aura, in death, if not in life. I understood the significance of the moment. It was pivotal. Things would change.

And things did change. Authorities, knowing that they have taken out an extremely popular rebel, quickly slapped one of the harshest curfews in recent times. A concomitant strike called by the pro-freedom camp ensued. All businesses remained shut. No milkmen came with supplies. Villagers ferrying vegetables to the town were sent back by the soldiers. Overnight an invisible curse had transformed the paradise into a penitentiary.

I wanted to visit my chain-smoking uncle but there was no way to go. Wherever one looked, stones rained. Without warning, locks of anger, pent up for years, had been flung open. It seemed that the only weapons, which the dispossessed had in its armory, were stones. This was responded to with brute force — bullets, pellets and stun grenades. The street outside uncle’s home was red. There was no way I could go to see him.

Over phone, his son, voice laced with panic, said that tear gas shells had further aggravated uncle’s asthma. The previous morning, he had nearly chocked to death. I reassured him that things would be better; curfew would be lifted soon and we could take his father to a good doctor or move him elsewhere — to breathe some fresh air. I recalled their sizable apple orchard with dozens of delicious apple trees. When we were younger, we would often run around those trees, amidst apple fragrance, as uncle oversaw workers in his farms. It was hard, all these years later, to see our memories being set alight.

A few days later I attempted to walk to uncle’s home. By now all phones were blocked and Internet was switched off in Kashmir. I took the interior alleyway. From a distance I saw soldiers manning the back road that would have led me to uncle’s home. These were pathways, doted with turtledoves, which we had taken all our lives. As I got near, the cops signaled me to go back. I tried to shout, saying I must see a patient. They didn’t listen.

                                                    Sopore, June 2016 (Photo: Sameer) 

Someone said that the only way to reach the airport was just after dawn. One had to wait outside the airport for a few hours till they opened the gates and allow you in. I was supposed to fly out of India the next day. Overcome by guilt of not being able to see uncle — or even ask about his well being over phone (internet continues to be blocked and outgoing calls barred in Kashmir even three months later), I decided to make one last ditch attempt.

Once again — third time during two weeks — I took off on foot for uncle’s home. You couldn’t take the main road because concertina wire blocked all entry and exit points. Cops acknowledged no curfew passes. Walking along the pasturage of our little town, down the back alley, past the singing turtledoves, by the dirt track, it began to drizzle. My uncle’s home was in sight now. Hundred yards and a road separated us. I felt deeply poignant.

Here is an extract of the exact conversation I had with cops.

“Can I cross this road?”

“There is curfew.”

“I need to see my uncle. He is very sick.”

“We have orders to not allow anyone to cross.”

“Please. I have to fly tomorrow.”

“Go away.”

I turned back. It was futile.

The turtledove was still singing on my way back. It had a sad song.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

No notes tonight

It was not Amjad Sabri, who was the colossus of the famed Sabri clan — a family that chewed betel leaves and made magical music — but his father Ghulam Farid Sabri. Direct descendants of Mian Tansen — a Navaratna in the royal court of the Mughal Emperor Jalal ud-din Muhammed Akbar — they belonged to the Sabriya silsila of Sufism. Humble people who conquered the world with a simple harmonium and the power of their vocals. The Sabri brothers universalised Qawali — an energetic rendition in which words spiral high above all those assembled, like a whirlwind, to gently tap on the doors of heaven.

Amjad certainly carried forward the illustrious legacy of his extremely talented father and forefathers. Although less commercially-inclined than his contemporary Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri carried within his heavyset form a deep-seated love for God and His messenger. He would sing paeans to the Lord in a baritone that had no match, over and over again. He burst into a song as if the whole world was his. That is the thing with Sufis. They transcend the realm of love, which the forces of hate can never fathom.

With his murder, the last of the great Sabris has been silenced forever. The mystic notes are gone. They say that Sufi kalaam is akin to the chirrup of birds in a jungle; the jungle being a metaphor for the temporal. Rumi wrote nearly 750 years ago, ‘Sing like the birds that sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.’ Tragic that we should witness birdsongs being erased right in front of our eyes.


Sunday, June 19, 2016

What a time to be alive!

In all probability the empress is fasting. Why else would she say then that there are just four bunkers in the valley? Kashmir is a continuous bunker. The state, with a population of slightly more than 10 million, has an estimated 700,000 soldiers, making it perhaps the highest civilian military ratio anywhere in the world. (70:1,000). The American counter insurgency manual says that ratios close to 25:1,000 are enough to achieve geographical dominance. Four bunkers? Like you can’t be serious?

You have to be fasting. Or anxious. In two days the Anantnag constituency will go to bypolls. Miss Mufti, the incumbent CM of J&K, is likely to win. According to press reports, between 50 to 100 people gathered at different spots during her road trips. Complete with paraphernalia, Miss Mufti’s Mama ji and other PDP stalwarts are camping in the constituency, criss-crossing villages, galvanizing voters. Raj Babbar has also arrived to campaign. New Delhi-based TV channels are itching to call it ‘Return of Peace’. They just can’t wait.

Even as Ramzan and polls concur in the South of Kashmir, everyone and his uncle who might have dissented and spoken otherwise, are under lock and key. Democracy is a clever sahar-khawn. It knows where to beat its drums. It would be insane, for instance, to let Geelani sahib, out of Hyderpora. Not only will people pour out in droves, he might actually put his fierce Urdu to a devastating effect. Best to keep pro-freedom leadership from upsetting the TV achors, who have specially flown from Delhi. Iftar parties, after all, cannot be a vinegary affair.

Even if 5% of those who attend a fallen rebel’s funeral were to vote, one would call it representative. The fact is that people don’t really enjoy this panoply of farce upon a farce. Yes, putting all the state machinery to use for over a month, wandering from village to village, panchayat to panchayat, does provide for some lazy Ramzan-time entertainment, but it means little if you don’t address the lament in people’s hearts; their aspirations and hopes.

Back in Srinagar a school founded by DP Dhar’s son shall now tell us how to dress. In the middle of Ramzan. This is 2016, not 1971.


Monday, June 06, 2016

Theorizing in Ramzan

When non-namazis outnumber regular mosque goers, you can safely conclude that the holiest month in the Islamic calendar is here. All roads shall lead to masjids tonight, where the devout will read the Quran; supplications shall be made. Butchers will cut more lamb, bakeries will bake more and Rajasthani dates will sell like hot cakes. During Iftar the dilemma that many faithful shall confront is not whether the Imam will recite long suras in the shaam namaz, but where to keep the seed of the date? A theory on what to do with the seed is yet to come from the IAS academy.

In related developments, the bickering between mainstream political parties has suddenly spiraled in the valley. Rashid engineer – with his fingers in too many pies – is spoiling the party for the PDP in exactly the same fashion that he used to spoil it for Omar. A few days back, in an act of sudden nostalgia, engineer trained guns at his old nemesis — NC — again. Perturbed, the grand old party of Kashmir unleashed their best weapon: Akbar Lone. In big headmaster glasses and freshly dyed hair, he led a verbal-carnage on engineer. Being a man of the street, MLA Langate gave it back to the old boor, only to be dubbed as an agent. ‘You are an IB man’. That is like the worst form of gaali in Kashmir. Worse than wishing someone death. Engineer is still recovering from the shock.

Meanwhile democracy continues unabated in the valley. All pro-freedom leaders have been imprisoned or detained or house-arrested in a major pre-Ramzan sweep, you see, just to make it more democratic during the holy month. Miss Mufti has to campaign in her bypolls, cut a few red ribbons at ATMs and coffee shops, and propose more cat and dog tales. There must be no noise in the backdrop. It spoils the carefully designed prop and ends up showing everything in a bad light. So a case dating back to the Maharaja’s time will be dusted and old boy Yasin shall be booked under it. Madame will cut more ribbons. A rented crowd will clap. Perfect. Democracy. 10/10.

As Satan is put in chains (imagine someone like Donald Trump without his wig, confined to Trump Towers for a month), Kashmiris get ready to welcome Ramzan. They shall, however, await a word from Radio Pakistan tonight, not withstanding all the hearts and minds, and pigeon and cat, and other propaganda theories. They will wait and wait until the announcement comes. Even the IAS afsars will wait. There is no theory to beat that sentiment.

Ramzan Mubarak


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Throwing the cat among the pigeons

When our parents were growing up, there used to be a huge sheri-bakra divide in the valley. So essentially there were lions and there were lambs. Srinagar was a very dangerous jungle. The lions would attempt to frighten the lambs and call it fair. These were democratic rules of the jungle. The circus masters in Delhi cheered them on. This carried on for a long time.

Then one day the lambs got together in Srinagar, in Sopore, in Islamabad, in Bandipore, in Kupwara, in Kokernag — all over the place. They decided enough is enough. If the lions can maul us, and call it democratic, let us beat them at their own game. Let us run for elections. Let us show them we are not meek pushovers. The year was 1987.

Sure enough the lions panicked. The circus masters in Delhi were alarmed. They were afraid of two things — a) lions are a better deal. When they perform, the audience claps, b) lambs were untested. They were ideologically inverse, even if easily bullied. Also the lions had many ruffians and butchers on their side. Intellectuals are brilliant but they are not good at rigging elections.

So the lions — cunning old boys that they were — beat them at the democratic exercise. Lambs lost badly. Their votes floated in the Jhelum and flowed all the way to Pakistan. The ringmasters breathed a sigh of relief. Geelani sahib — whom Sanghi retards like to call a broker these days — and others went into oblivion. The lions continued their rule, unchallenged.

A few years later there was mutiny in the jungle. The lions fled. Their ringmasters vanished into thin air. What started as a take-over, a revolution of sorts, soon turned into pandemonium. While it is true that uprisings, because of their very nature of insubordination, are usually messy, ours was a little extra sloppy. Two and a half decades on, we are still unsure about what hit us in 1989.

What we remember — for sure — is everything that transpired in this interim. The horrid, hellish stuff that took place. But even before we could figure out how to make our way out of the woods — that are deep and dark, the ringmasters were back. This time around they had another set of creatures to cheer on.

And as if to paper-over everything that we have been through, and make little of our collective indignations, we now have a new name: cats. Suddenly it feels as if a cat has kittened in our mouths. Move over, bakras. The cats have cometh.

Ms Mufti is a fellow Kashmiri. If we have cat whiskers, she too has cat claws. Eventually all cats are gray in the dark.