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.


“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.

Monday, 10 October 2016

Does it Ever Go Away?

I had bad news for breakfast. The 12 year old kid who was in coma after being hit by pellets, died. He studied in New Bonvivant English School and his roll number was 29.

The curfews and the unbearable sadness of being a Kashmiri I can take; the despair I cannot. Even sleep is an alien now. When I cannot sleep or read, I watch movies. I reached for an old hard drive and watched the movie “Rabbit Hole”. Yet again.

There may be spoilers in the following paras, naturally.

Rabbit Hole is a very personal account of a couple's dealing with the loss of their child. It is a slow progression of events - mundane, daily life occurrences, nothing dramatic - which brings forth the fault lines left behind by a personal tragedy. A tragedy for which no parent prepares.

Becca, the protagonist, is subdued - as indeed anyone mother would be after the death of her child. Danny was just four years old. Slowly, as the movie progresses she comes to term with her loss. She meets Jason, the high school kid who was driving the car that killed her son. It was an accident, brought on by the dog that suddenly ran out of the gate followed by Danny. Becca and her husband do not blame Jason, having accepted it as an accident. Becca’s brother Arthur had died when he was thirty of a heroin overdose. This creates a parallel which Becca detests – her innocent child who was killed in an accident and her mother’s son who at thirty died of drug abuse. Of the two mothers, who is the more pained?

When the toys of little Danny are all piled up in a corner, Becca asks her mother does the grief ever go away. No, her mother replies, it doesn’t go away.

It was at this moment that the question arose and framed itself in reference of Kashmir. Day after day, in the last sixty days, and in the past few years we have come across pictures of mothers in Kashmir wailing at the death of their children. India’s fancy weaponry has claimed the lives of many, many children in Kashmir. In fact, this immediately takes me back to the 90s, to the old black and white newspapers where white shrouds used to be stark against a forever clouded sky.  Does this grief ever go away? Is it possible to move on and not blame – like Becca and Jason?

Someone once told me those who are gone are gone. The ones that are left behind will forever carry the cross: the kids those are maimed and blinded. The fair faces that are scared forever. The ones who will live with their injuries forever. It will be their parents who will suffer through this every day. For most, doctors say that the injuries will have a lasting impact and some will never be able to see again. While it is not settled what will happen next, Mehbooba Mufti, on her visit to New Delhi, audaciously asked the young girl who lost her eyes and face to pellet guns if she was angry with her. Photojournalist Zuhaib who lost one of his eyes to pellet fire broke down in a video interview asking what he had done to deserve this.

In their powerfully detailed book on Kunanposhpora, the writers say that the purpose of reopening the case is to keep the struggle for justice alive. If they don’t protest, the army men will repeat the same again and again. Someone has to stand for justice. In acknowledging the struggle of Kashmiri people the book concludes with the powerful line, “Remembrance is ours”. This is a very potent construct for the Kashmir context. Faced with a structure that aims to blow the public discourse in just one direction that suits the state reopening and re-examining cases like Kunan-Poshpora is a struggle in itself. The same can be said of the thousands of inquiries which the state started and forgot about in Kashmir. I am not sure if anyone keeps a track. Who wants to sit as an accountant on the dusty books of injustice? But there are those who have no other option. Parveena Ahanger whose son was taken by the Army in 1990 (and was 'disappeared') and who formed the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons still cries at each retelling of her tragedy. Its been 26 years – she hasn’t quit fighting. Neither have other members of her association.

The bridge over memory in Kashmir is a short one. Everyday is a grim reminder of what could not be forgotten in the first place. Junaid was 12 years old, standing outside the gate of his house when the Indian army murdered him. In 2010, Tufail Mattoo was going to tuition when  CRPF fired a tear gas shell which hit him on the head. He died on spot.

For the rest of us, we will pick up pieces of life and continue, till the next wave crashes on the store and all wounds are opened up. Eventually. No one accounts for the loss of the living. The reluctance and political lethargy of the India and Pakistan continue to bring more misery and difficulties for us, the people of Kashmir. There seems to be no end to this!

In the end we are left with poetry and the romance of autumn, the thrill of the chinar and the enchantment of hope in an awfully sad world. That is Kashmir, and no, it never goes away. It becomes manageable. As Becca’s mother explains it, "like a brick in your pocket. You carry it around. You even forget it for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason, and there it is."

(Pic: Screenshot from the movie "Rabbit Hole")

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Walnut Picker

There is no moral to this story. There is no special import either. It’s a record of fifteen minutes of an afternoon in autumn in Srinagar. Autumn is still young and the walnut tree in the neighbour’s garden has thick clusters of dark green leaves yet. It stands alone among a few poplars and thorny bushes.

Through the branches I could not see his face. But he was young and slender. He wore faded black jersey which said something on the back in yellow and grey pajamas.

I don’t know who he was, or how he came to be in our neighbour’s garden, but his being there was clearly no secret. If I heard him, the neighbor’s must have too, and since no one objected, I assumed he was not a thief.

Walnut trees are tall, sturdy and tough to climb. He made no attempt to climb it. The tree stood tall above him and he squinted as he looked at the high branches where walnuts grew: brown at this time of the year.

He was clearly enjoying the warm afternoon, and the aroma of old leaves in autumn. He walked leisurely on the fallen leaves listening to their soft rustle. He picked a stick and cleared his way among the bushes, looking for any fallen walnuts yet unpicked. There were none.

He walked a few steps away from the tree. Looked at the hanging walnuts near the top of the tree where they hung like ear rings of the sky and paused. He held his baton in his left hand and took a firm aim.

The cane whooshed as it flew upward towards the sky. It hit the branches of the walnut tree but missed his mark.

He picked it up again and twirled it a few times and threw it at the walnuts again. And again. The third time he threw it, the stick did not come down. It got tangled in the tree. But it hit the brown walnuts and with a tap they fell down.

Again walking as if the world could wait for him, he roamed around the tree turning over the leaves to find the fallen walnuts. He put them in his pocket and looked at the tree again.

He snapped his stick into two: easily, as if it were a twig in his hands, and aimed at the tree again. This time he aimed higher but the cane flew over the tree and landed on the other side.

He felt the walnuts in his pocket, glanced at the tree and walked away.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

The First Day of Autumn

This is the first day of autumn. The autumnal equinox occurs today.

I have too many questions on my mind. This is one of them. When do we write off a city?

When the floods came in 2014, there was a certain amount of despair in Srinagar. A certain amount of gloominess that comes only from watching ruins. Large parts of the city were deserted. People used to sit outside ruined homes, trying to salvage whatever little could be saved. Mostly Srinagar stared blankly into the void and the void stared back at the city.

Autumn brings in the chaos in our lives. This is nature’s Instagram account where everything is sepia toned and shaded. It is not very cold yet, but we are heading towards that.

Autumn may also bring in war in Kashmir, at least, if you believe a lot of Indian news channels. The naiveté surprises me, thought the rhetoric doesn’t. For many of the war mongers, it will be an excursion – listening to tales of bravado which they can pass on to generations and brag about for years. As much of things to do with Kashmir, it will not effect them. It will not be fought on their streets, among their people.

Before we realize time the chinars will be covered in red and gold leaves. I am waiting for that. In the barren city of Srinagar, it will be quite a show. I doubt if the people have given up yet.  It will be dishonest to say that this year has been just difficult, it has been devastating. There has been a war, and all humanity murdered. I just completed Ernest Hemingway’s “Farewell to Arms”. For Hemingway, war is an occupation where humanity survives only on the hope of its end. And this is emblematic of Kashmir today – we are hoping for one war to end before they wage another. I doubt the soldiers on either side want to fight a war, but it will be imposed on them just like on us, if the powers that be decide so.

There has been a complete shutdown for almost three months now. Almost all of it under curfew imposed by the government. The government is on the other side of the fence; they are not from among us and I have no good words to say about it. I, like everyone on this side of the fence, want people to not be arbitrarily killed. 86 people have died in this summer. The whole city is a war front which the media does not see and show. People, locked up in their homes, have given up work, money and opportunity to survive this war and see the end of the conflict. Enough, I hear my sighs whisper. Enough of the summers of bloodshed.

When the floods subsided, and the city rose from the ruins like a person lost in the sudden brightness of the day, there was much loss to wail over. On a bright day of that autumn two years ago, I walked to Amira Kadal Bridge. It was few days to Eid that year, and the city was, much like this year, barren. Piles of mud were being thrown out of shops, all stocks had turned to mush in the flood waters and the floors of many shops had cracked. The shopkeepers looked around with hollow eyed desperation. On the bridge, there was a small mob of people gathered around a hand cart. I wondered what the hawker was selling. A man held out a watch, a simple dial with a plastic strap. Its face slightly dirtied by flood, but ticking. The times were still changing, as they always do.

I, like everyone else, don’t know what will happen next – and I will not speculate about the future. Will we be caught in a senseless war between India and Pakistan on our territory? Or will be be occupied by autumn’s revelry? We have had enough of both India and Pakistan in our homes. I wish the unwelcome guests go back and cease the war among us. There is no dignified argument for war, but there is every possibility in this autumn – war or otherwise.

This time, more than ever, I am waiting for the chinars to change hues. For the clocks to tick a little bit more.

Lets not write off Srinagar just yet. Not yet.