Friday, 25 November 2016

Five

Here we are already!

Words after words, cups after cups, another year ends and Rich Autumns is now five years old.



Should we celebrate?



This year was definitely not the happiest in Kashmir. More than 100 days spent under curfew and lockdown consecutively. Countless number of people dead and blinded. We are now all witnesses, this blog included, to what went down in a small valley that tries to keep to its own.

But after so much scarring and loss, Srinagar is still a beautiful city where people still choose to live in hope of a better tomorrow.


Resilience: to stand in the path of lightening
Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon
Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill
Resilience will come to you.

Vakh 90 - Lalla Ded
(from I, Lalla by Ranjit Hoskote)


Thank you, readers, for following along. These are just processions of words and cups of nunchai.

Here is a list of posts from the last year. If you have read more than five of these, I think we can be friends.


Monday, 7 November 2016

Lost Forever

Its a long way to home. Always.

Srinagar. The Bund is a bending road around the Jhelum. Like memory it takes subtle, soft turns. I saw the stranger walk down the Bund in autumn, and my memory from years ago is like it happened yesterday. Perhaps it did.

That promenade around the Jhelum is like a metaphor for Srinagar, fallen from grace.



He appears from below the Chinar trees, the golden leaves' dust on his shoulders. He smiles, but his eyes are hollow.

"Don't lose hope, love" I want to yell. But he doesn't see me. He sees right through me. I can almost feel his gaze. Piercing, like his eyes. It warms my heart.

As we walk together, I can smell the leaves in autumn - with their strong dry fragrance, and his cologne. We walk past the Goodfellas cafe, the chairs in the lawn are hunched. At another restaurant, the sign says open, but the door is closed. The coffee shops are all closed in the city. A few men sit in the park opposite on the benches around the trees. There is no one else.  "What do you love about autumn so much?" he asks.

 We walked in silence for a while. The question hung in the air. I had once questioned what lovers in Srinagar did in winters, when it is all hard and cold. I think I know now. They wilt. The stranger's hollow eyes are an answer enough. His dream seems to be deserting him - it isn't fair for anyone to be so beautiful and without dreams. But Life is too busy to take such questions, and we must pass this promenade of memory and into the maze of the city. The cacophony of the city doesn't reach here. We seem to have found a corner of the place, most people have forgotten. Two men were digging the side of the road. What if they found treasure hidden at the bottom of the city?

In this place bereft of all romance the sun sets early these days. It rises late. The sunset is very golden behind a grey sky. It is the only thing that makes sense, the clockwork of nature. We were walking away from the sun, and our  shadows were long and touching as we got off the promenade near the Post Office. Even if I wrote him a letter, I would not have been able to post it. This year all the love letters were delayed. Love was put on hold, momentarily, and lost forever.

It was getting dark and the markets crowded. Near the unfinished construction barrier at the Fountain, the hawkers and the cars were adjusting themselves to the pedestrians.

An old man calls from his chestnut cart saying this is the last of this year's season.

"Its like short lived romance, where everything is possible." I say, "It also doesn't last."

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Autumn Spectacle

It is fun to do such a post every now and then.






































Thursday, 27 October 2016

Like Snow in Summers



On July 8, 2016 Indian Army killed Burhan Wani, a militant commander of a group demanding freedom of Kashmir from India. The aftermath has been a mass uprising in Kashmir. People have been protesting and the government declared curfew. Till 15th August, India’s Independence Day, there had been no let up in the curfew and 38 people had died.

When his phone didn’t connect after repeated attempts, he knew the phones had been blocked. He could go on for days without talking to his parents, but at times like this it seemed urgent. Srinagar was so far away – and everything around him was so removed from home. It was like thinking about spring in autumn, or remembering snow in summers.

“Hello. Greetings”
“Greetings, son” said a sombre voice at the other end. His father sounded distant and slower. 
That was the last conversation he had with his father four days ago. 

***

He was vaguely aware of the music before he was awakened by it. Nabeel woke up early. Too early for a holiday. And with great annoyance. He waited in the bed, eyes still closed. Wishing sleep would come again. Stretching his toes. Trying to think of something other than the song blaring from the loudspeaker. A particularly sappy one - one he had never liked.

India's Independence Day announced itself on a hundred unread Whatsapp messages from his office group. He ignored. Trying to go back to sleep. Trying hard not curse. He couldn't.

There seemed to be no escape for him. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he looked outside the window to see who was playing these songs, but the sound seemed to be coming from nowhere in particular. All he could see was the abandoned half-constructed building next to his. Then Lata Mangeshkar sang about martyrs.

Yes, what about them? He wanted to yell at whosoever was playing these songs.

He gave up. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. He decided to make tea, but that would mean going downstairs to the dingy little grocery store to buy milk. That would mean meeting people. That may also mean attending the flag hoisting.

He had overheard some kids talk about the flag hoisting in the ‘society’ – one of the things people in Delhi did. He didn’t know where they would do it – but by instinct, and habit, he wanted no part of it. Outside a group of women was chatting loudly over the music – he could hear them through the door. He turned away – tea could wait.

He had never held a flag in his hand.

Four days ago, his father had called to tell him to stay inside his room and not to go outside on 15th August.

It was still 10 o’ clock. The music was still playing.

He checked his Facebook. More curfews in Kashmir, more people dead in police action, more protests. There were no notifications, as expected. He hadn’t posted anything in weeks. The last post was when 12 boys had died. Now, social media informed him, it was more than 30. Three of them from his neighbourhood. He wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he one knew of them – the one who sneaked out at night with him to smoke in the darkness.

He took a bottle of water and rinsed his mouth.

He had returned to Delhi on 10 July having spending his Eid holidays at home in early July. Srinagar was under curfew then. He had left his home before dawn, in the darkness, to reach the airport. All along the way army men patrolled empty roads and stray dogs barked at the passing car. No movement was allowed during daytime. It was almost a month since his return; Srinagar was still under curfew. He knew his father hadn’t been to work in a month. He wondered if he was still buying the medicines. His diabetes medicine was expensive, and often he would skip a pill in between intentionally. Was he taking it regularly? Now that it hit him, there was no way to know.

Internet was not working. Phones were not working either.

So he waited and felt the whirring of the fan overhead. He pulled his legs up and tried to concentrate on the soft snoring of his roommates rather than the songs from outside. Noida was a swarm of high and low rise buildings perennially covered in dust from some construction. This city was still being built. It was always under construction. Every morning an army of workers would converge to the skeletal structures and disperse. In the evening they would emerge again. Nabeel lived with three other boys in one newly let out apartment building, with no furnishing and erratic water supply. The other three were not from Kashmir, and Nabeel had met them when over time moving from place to place, job to job he had finally landed there. Their agreement to stay together had somehow worked thus far – the fair Kashmiri who didn’t speak much – even though they worked at different places and had no mutual friends anymore.

What about the martyrs? They were kids, weren’t they? The next day’s newspapers would carry the death toll at 38 people, most of them of Nabeel’s age and younger. Twenty five years. Killed by an army operating within its laws. The singer extolled him to recall and weep over the deaths. Yes, he would. His friend had multiple injuries from the pellet gun which was the government’s weapon of choice against the protesters. It sprays small balls of lead at no particular target. He had been shot from a fatally close range.

Did they find any cigarettes on him then? Cheap Four Square brand. Did his mother come to know about his smoking after his death? There was no way to know the answer to life’s unending little mysteries. How did he feel now? What did he see before dying? What did he say? Was there anyone around him?

He must save his memory. He must not forget him.

This year had been particularly bad. He had read with a tremble in his spine how some CRPF guy had need put needles in the eyes of a five year old. Five, he could not get over the ages of these people. They were either too young or about his age. Was that an age to die? What if he was in Kashmir? Would he be dead too? Had he cheated death by coming here?

He looked away from his thoughts. There was a cockroach in the sink trying to climb its wall. The women were still outside the door. Bracing himself he went out in his t-shirt and shorts. The women saw him and smiled at him. He looked down and hurried away. They continued talking. The grocer’s was at the ground floor. There was a small crowd of children asking for things and women in long dresses chatting while waiting. He put the change on the glass-top and asked for a packet of milk. It appeared; he snatched it and tore away to his apartment.

The boys had arranged for a cook to come and cook meals for them. But today being Independence Day, he had taken the day off. He was planning to his wife and kids to India Gate. That was two days off in a row; yesterday had been Sunday. That meant there was nothing to eat in the apartment. In the afternoon, the other boys had already made plans.
“Going out?” his flatmate Mohit asked him.
“Not really. Are you?”
“Yes. See you later.” And with a strong whiff of deodorant Mohit was gone.

Later in the evening and not knowing what to do Nabeel pushed himself to go to the mall to get some coffee and to get away from his apartment. He realised that it was a mistake as soon as he reached. It was loud and noisy like a child’s birthday party except that the guests paid for everything and there were no gifts. At each entrance of the mall, there was a huge and a gaudy decoration of paper flames in the three colours of the Indian flag: orange, white and green. The place was decked with buntings in the three colours. His flatmates had brought a bunch of three balloons last night – green, white and orange. Nabeel had accidently burst the orange one, and it hung, spent and useless with the thread. The food court was on the top of the mall and as he made his way through the escalators, the dazzling lights of shops caught his eyes. There were mannequins dressed in green, white and orange, display screens which blasted the three colours and offered special discounts, a counter was even selling ice cream in the three colours. People were wearing lapel pins in the shape of the Indian flag and some had small streaks of the colours in their hair. A woman outside the mall had offered him a lapel pin too, and was surprised when he had refused.

He ordered his coffee at the counter. There were three people in front of him with large and elaborate orders. Clearly they had come with a group. The boys were celebrating Independence Day by wearing a kurta over jeans.

“One latte, please.”

He tendered the exact change and waited for his order.

There were not many tables vacant, but he found one at the back. In a distant corner, away from the centre of the floor where families were having a picnic of South Indian food and young couples were sipping cold coffee or eating sundaes with plastic spoons. He watched as he sipped the coffee. The people of the free world were enjoying their history.

Now, he hadn’t spoken to his mother in three days as the government had blocked the phones in Kashmir. He had heard about Burhan Wani, the killed militant, before he died. He thought Burhan was exceedingly good looking, and that was the first thing Nabeel mourned when he heard about his death. Some policeman had clicked a ghastly picture of his fair face after death. And then the curfews had come. He had secretly counted the number of people killed, but then lost count at about twenty two.

He felt his eyelids droop. He sipped coffee.

“Do you have money? Should I send some?” he had wanted to ask his father but the question choked his voice. His father would have never accepted it.

He knew his father was relieved that Nabeel was in Delhi, away from Kashmir and Nabeel resented that. His office was a small networking company and Nabeel was still a novice at the job. He had joined it after much prodding by a friend who worked there for sometime before moving to Dubai. His parents hoped Nabeel would do the same. Nabeel wanted to be back in Kashmir; with his friends at Khayam Street dining on barbecue meat as they used to every month with their savings. Now his friends had some meager jobs collecting data for a government agency and Nabeel was in Delhi.

The next day when he went to office the people were still talking about the long weekend – the parties and the picnics. He had spent the long weekend curled up in a corner reading Ernest Hemmingway and the angry social media messages. He had not had any dinner for two days and skipped lunches for tea. The girl in the next cubicle was eating something out of a box. Nabeel looked over and she smiled at him, ashamed to have been caught. Prachi was an affable young girl who loved eating more than anything else.

Then she rose above the cubicle wall, “How was your weekend?”

“Miserable. I have not eaten in two days” Nabeel confided in her. He realised he hadn’t also spoken to anyone in two days, but that he didn’t tell Prachi.

“Really? Here,” she offered him the box.

“No, thanks. I just had breakfast outside. How was your weekend?”

“Awesome.” And then without warning or invitation she launched into the details of her weekend trip to the cinema, the movie she saw, her saunters in the new giant mall, and how they had wished to go to Chandigarh for some reason but weren’t able to.

“Hmm.”

“How are things in Kashmir? I heard on the news there is some trouble.”

“Not really good. A lot of people have died.”

“Oh, shit!”

***

“Did you go out today? Were the markets open?” he asked his father on the phone.
“No, I didn’t. I don’t know.” 
His father had not stepped out of his house even once in the last month. There had been no let up in the curfew since. 
There was silence on the line as both considered what to speak next.

Monday, 17 October 2016

A Requiem


Its been 101 days since the last bus plied in Kashmir, ferrying people still in Eid festivity to their homes. How much can memory serve?

It was still summer then and Ramazan had just ended. When the curfews began, all life disappeared. Overnight Kashmir was at a sort of war – with India, make no mistake. People protested, the Indian army killed. You can use any verb that floats your boat – retaliated, killed in self defence, killed in extreme conditions, blah, blah.

This may sound a bit extreme to you, so let me bring in the autumn here. The chinars have just started to shade – a little brown at this time but mostly green.

So, summers were gone in a whirl of protests and chaos. But, overtime, we have learnt the art of survival in this chaos. Remember the floods? We lived through those with  massive civil cooperation. Kashmiris all over the world sent in aid and people organized camps for distribution. The government was nowhere to be seen, at least initially. Civilians rowed boats through the waters to rescue trapped people and deliver food to those who didn’t move out.

This time too people were where they were needed. In hospitals. As volunteers. Assisting the medical staff in relief operations. A person donated a five lakh rupees which saved on his son’s wedding by having a simple ceremony to a hospital. Quintals of meat were donated to SMHS hospital on Eid.

There is some sadistic pleasure derivable from the suffering in Kashmir. This was very apparent in the last 100 days. Many blamed the victims. “Why are they pelting stones?” “Why are people out in a curfew?” “If you throw stones, don’t you deserve to be fired at?” Some gentleman also compared stones and bullets, saying that the stones were hurled with an aim to kill and the bullet was fired in self defense and to deter. People who have never lived more than a day (if at all that too) under curfew argued how Kashmiris should live under a curfew – peacefully, without raising a voice. Safe to preach from a distance? Easy to suppress a voice that has no force? We were lectured by a minister from India what being a Kashmiri means and how we should behave in general. Why must we not protest, I ask? There is nothing peaceful about a curfew. Phones and internet were blocked, to a point that phone companies wulled over closing offices in Kashmir. For India's populist media this is a routine exercise. Their failure to understand that Kashmiris have been demanding an end to a brutal, cruel conflict was showcased again and again. Painfully. In the initial days, injured kept pouring in. Thousands were injured by pellet fire. Hundreds lost their eyes to it. Even the dead were attacked. Funerals were tear gassed and people were not allowed to shoulder coffins.

Briefly the army was called in again. And then taken out. Thousands of people were arrested and are still being arrested, every night. Their future is uncertain.The state creates its own demons and seeks redemption.

But the chinars, are slowly roasting their hues to rouge. The gardens are filled with the fallen leaves. Like gold.

As if in an answer to itself the government killed a 12 year old last week. In July, the CRPF personnel pierced the eyes of a five year old boy. I don't know where to place this grief. Again curfew was imposed, and the empire placated.  At what cost? The continuous lock down has meant losses in education, business and so, so many opportunities. The grounds of Kashmir University are largely empty. And yet there is not a squeak from anywhere.

Of course, some people were very keen on sounding the trumpets of war. In Delhi, I am sure, they must have sounded musical, but in Srinagar they sounded dangerous and sardonic. News channels made a full circus of it and if there was a spark they were keen to turn it into a flame. A Whatsapp group of which I am a member had a person from New Delhi proclaim something like “WAR…WAR…WAR…” as if declaring war on Pakistan was the only way left to save his sanity. There was no mention by the gentleman of the Kashmiris killed by the Indian army. Another Indian friend (and more who know me only through this blog) sent a “stay safe” message. In all the mess, that curfew was still not lifted from Kashmir was forgotten. Conveniently.

The city is full of the aroma of roasting chestnuts. The fragrance wafts under the blossoming chinars on the Residency Road. There are no dull moments.

The last hundred days also brought out the essence of life we lead. There is a chasm that India and her people haven’t quite crossed to reach us yet. On this side of the Pir Panjal, she somehow ceases to exist. And as she considers her force again and again to enter, she fails again and again. So has been our story, ever. People don’t give up their cherished desires and aspirations for nothing – howsoever romantic they may sound to others, especially if they are any bit romantic. The much vilified “youth of Kashmir” does not, and cannot, exist in a political vacuum. Denial and force haven’t gotten any results thus far. And the autumn is fading fast.
(c) @zikrejaana. Used with permission

To read more about the 2016 uprising, follow this link.