And I have begin to fear that I may have forgotten the stranger after all. Did he ever exist?
The Botanical Gardens in Kashmir in winters are a lonely place. During summers college lovers sneak into the gardens to spend time hiding the bidding of their untrained hearts among the bushes. Expressing the excitement, the nervousness, the fear in coy whispers.
Looking out of the gazebo, Love had seemed a bit pointless. Like the silly morning breeze in Kashmir. When the whole city is asleep except the muezzin and the kandroo, and time stares blankly in the quiet, I realized that the stranger may have never been in love at all.
The faraway warrior. Fighting his own personal battles.
He has a habit of silently walking in and our of my prayers. As an unfulfilled desire, he is always there and yet never spoken of. The stranger would look out of his window and see his reflection in the rain of an unknown city. The rain drowns the humdrum of life and locks you up inside. Alone, to confront the memories of the past. The past where the Botanical Gardens were an unabashed reality and the chinars were full of promise in autumn rain.
Last evening the city almost drowned. But the brave men of Kashmir (but not Raj Bagh) saved the entire population. The men folk rebuilt the bunds, diverted the water and fervently prayed that the rains stop. Then God listened to the men and accepted their manly pleas and the rains subsided. So the little valley rumbled in a collective (masculine) sigh that there wont be a repeat of a 2014-like situation.
2014, which we all remember as the year when women and a dog in Raj Bagh caused destructive floods in Kashmir. Women in Kashmir are known to run families, protests and occasional casual calamities. This could have been easily prevented but as everyone realizes girls in Raj Bagh will just not stop wearing jeans. To top it all, scooties have spread like a, God forbid, flood in the city. The girls are taking the wind under their hijabs and buzzing about like its nobody’s business.
Will these women not let the men live in peace?
As Bilal, the young man in a pink cardigan, took it upon himself to stand by the Jehlum and point out that out of all the ills in the society uncontrolled women is the absolute worst. These women, the uncontrolled kind, have become a liability which, he sermonized to a small gathering and a larger audience through Facebook Live, must be checked. He was shocked as he narrated that no one, literally no one, was asking the girls where they were when they return from wherever they had been to. How can a society not have floods when the men are not asking the right questions? To be fair, Bilal also thinks that the family who (and he is an eye witness to it) prepared 17 quintals of meat for some reason is partly to be blamed for the floods.
If it is not quite clear how women’s apparel and earthquakes are connected then you clearly havent paid attention in Urdu poetry classes. If wearing tight clothes wasn’t bad enough, these women also go with zulf pareshaan (untied hair), the same condition which is known to bring dark clouds of misery and incessant rainfall which the poets confused with blessings.
And lets not even talk about celebrating a dog’s birthday – a topic so scandalous that when the maid narrated it to my mother she lowered her voice to a whisper and nodded her head in the shame of having to relate it. How can such things be tolerated? Who in their right mind will make a cake for a dog? A dog, not even a cat!
But if it is not for the mobile phones, the jeans and the high heels, or the scooties what could it possibly be? There is another potential reason for the floods floating around in the form of a video where a guy is serenading a girl with a rap song and promises to take her around on, Khuda raechhin (God forbid), a scooty!
Everyone is out to mend the “youth of Kashmir”. Something is up with the “youth of Kashmir”, the say.
The youth of Kashmir is a political entity, much like everything else in Kashmir. The youth is the “wayward stone pelters” or the dignified UPSC rank holders. There seems to be no middle ground. You either sit comfortably in the firmaments of power or are the dissenting future militia. The youth in Kashmir is not a vote bank, but held as a sort of a quasi referendum. So when the youth topped the UPSC it was the beginning of times, but when the youth burnt the flag it was the end of times.
Yet the youth of Kashmir can be herded into rallies on false pretenses. The youth of Kashmir can be lulled by promises of jobs. The youth of Kashmir can be recruited into the army. The youth of Kashmir can be murdered by the army. The murder of the youth of Kashmir can be celebrated and rewarded.
The youth of Kashmir can wear burqas and drive scooters. The youth of Kashmir can be gifted scooties when politically convenient. Their individual achievements in which the state played no part can be politically appropriated. The youth of Kashmir is the fodder for your 9 o’clock news.
Youth kay sab maamay banay huay hain. (Everyone pretends to be the uncle of youth).
The youth of Kashmir is driving the opinions. If you write letters to the youth of Kashmir, they will respond. And ask you to f*** off, politely. The youth of Kashmir understand and know. The youth of Kashmir has little patience for waiting for India to tell them what to want. They want to tell their own stories (and they are!). When the Prime Minister of a country gave Kashmiri youth two options – tourism or terrorism, the youth of Kashmir collectively rolled their eyes, because they couldn’t care less about him or his options (and opinions).
But again, you may want to risk treating the youth of Kashmir not so much as a demographic but as a political party. As a collective organisation of a uniformly thinking cohort. The youth of Kashmir is at once misled and depends only on the benefaction of the Indian state to be rescued. The youth will prove you wrong. The youth is the fighter on the street, the quiet errand boy, the unquiet dreamer and the industrious student. The youth is also the bystander waiting for things to turn up out of nothing.
They are the ones caught in the conflict and the ones who now wage this inherited war to no end. The youth of Kashmir is much like the youth at other places – flamboyant, aspiring, energetic. And, the youth has tough choices to make of living in the unquiet peace of Kashmir.
The recent events in Kashmir are disturbing, like always. Can we really have a ceasefire in Kashmir?
Just, cease. Stop. Go away.
Take your guns, battle-ware, violence away from Kashmir. And leave.
I think that may not be possible. Not so easily.
But can the violence really stop till the combatants are there?
I am not sure if this qualifies as a war, but there are two parties to it. There are civilians, people who live in Kashmir and want to continue living in Kashmir. People who want to work and earn from their work in Kashmir. And never leave, because we have a saying in Kashmir, “trade one house for a thousand more, but never set foot outside the door”.
Then there is the army. The ever present eyes watching from bunkers and old bungalows. Steel capped, armour jacketed men from India doing their country’s bidding in Kashmir. Occupying vast lands – practicing Warcraft on the native population. Yes, keeping the population under “control”.
Friday, the 26 May, the police and forces fired inside the Jamia Masjid as per eyewitness accounts. The Nowhatta area is a pseudo battle ground. On most days, it is like a usual market place. There are restaurants selling really red tandoori chicken, a huge shop selling furnishing items, smaller shops with wares on the road, heavy traffic, buses, a car wrongly parked et al. There is little police deployment there on a normal working day. But come Friday, there is nothing except army, police laden with guns and boys with stones.
On Friday when the army laid siege to the Jamia Masjid there was bloodshed inside the mosque. There was blood on the floor of the mosque. Someone had been hit by pellet guns. As per the standard operating procedure the pellets had been fired to kill.
Thankfully no one died. The spirit of Kashmir lived another day.
This follows closely the government’s call for ceasefire in Kashmir. The ceasefire is for border operations. The war within our cities continue. Mehbooba’s penchant for violence is expected to take a sinister turn post Ramadan. If this is a cease fire, what is otherwise.
Why, I ask, we can’t have an easier life? Or a right to live?
A few weeks ago a young man was mowed down by a police truck. The moment was captured on video. This infuriated the police who arrested the maker of the video. The alarming coldness of the act is not a concern of the state, its record is. In the absence of a video the news act would have been passed off as an accident – but the video shows otherwise. I wonder the family of the 22-year-old will see that video again and again and hope that the truck wouldn’t hit him.
Death is permanent. Those who are gone are gone. There is no glamour in young men being butchered on the roads.
Every week we hear about the murder of a young man in Kashmir. Yet there is no discussion on the structure of violence that the state has built in Kashmir where all murder and death are just circumstantial and one party is absolved of all responsibility. It has become very easy to blame Kashmiris for their own deaths. It is like a generation has committed itself to a mass suicide. Overtime. No one wants to hear or even talk about the anger common Kashmiris hold for having to put up with living in a militarized zones. There is no discussion on the daily subjugation that is so ingrained in the lives of these very young men who pelt stones or are mowed down. They and the army men both know who the stronger party in this trade is – the one with the guns, the one with force and power and the one with the law backing them.
A telltale picture of this was a series of three photos taken by a photojournalist. They show a young man talking to the army man (showing his ID perhaps), the second one of him being slapped, and third is the after math. For most Indians a small incident like this would not matter. But to the conscience of the young man it does. No one wants to take public humiliation lying down. Nothing much was made of this incident. But in the by lanes of Srinagar, a young man laid uneasy at night thinking and despising the occupation even more.
It is a constant reminder that you are not free. That you are not equal. And that whatever happens to you, you are not important. Your lives are ruled by the rules we make. And your lives are worth little.
At the back of our minds is this very tragically Shakespearean struggle to be or not to be.
The next Friday, 1st day of June, they drove another man down. And all the bells were ringing. The vitriol was forthcoming. A man lay crushed under the police vehicle, his bones crushed and blood filling his lungs. I wonder about the man behind the wheel of the car, the one who decided to mow another person down. Not just hit him with a car but crush him under it. Did he get down from his seat and walk away, or a posse of other policemen came to protect him. I wonder about them too. Was there regret filling the air like tear gas? Or was there a sense of pride at work done? Or was it helplessness at having fulfilled someone else’s orders, and become a murderer in turn.
The murdered is a memoir in the library of unopened books. He writes his story in different books and every time it is the same and every time he dies in the end. He might have held a lot of promise but now he lays in a grave. I can’t get over the alarming rate at which young people in Kashmir are being killed. It has slowly settled into a normal where a death is not considered shocking enough; there needs to be more added gore to make it noteworthy like mauled under a truck. This slow descent into desensitized territory is what makes carnage normal. There is nothing normal about living in state of fear and always, always yearning for an escape. The curfewed peace in Kashmir is not peaceful at all. And I yearn for an escape from that.
I woke up suddenly, fearing I was late. But there was still an hour to go. Too much time.
The morning was so pleasant; it could have been home. I walked to one of small round benches in the garden and watched two bright blue birds flutter across the trees. A frog hopped away and something moved in the bushes.
Where do we go from here?
I wrote my address down on a piece of paper. In cursive, as I had been taught in primary school. As I had done since childhood. The only one I had ever known. It had my name in it. It was my way to deal with loss, write it down.
Zoon Begum, the Lady of the Moon, the cat. She had just came by one day asking for food and never left. She sat on the chairs all day waiting for me to come by and rush to rub its nose on my shoes. Zoon loved that. She spent the whole winter, braving the snow, sitting under the rags waiting for warm bowls of milk and biscuits. Come spring, Zoon Begum left.
Who shall take care of you, Zooni?
And now I followed the memory back. To Zoon, to the morning smells of dew, to home. To an old wooden chess board that belonged to my grandmother. Some things leave behind very private memories. These sixty-four small squares held sixty-four small blanks of memories which I could not explain to anyone. It smelled of ancient wood and by constant use, it carried the aroma of my grandmother’s memory. Of all things, I needed to salvage this.
Was it too late now?
Srinagar was having a hot, unduly sunny afternoon where the windows were framed white in the heat. For a moment, it was hard to recognize. But if I squinted my eyes, I could see myself in it. A bit altered, of course. I folded the chess board and rubbed my hands. In my mind a small vial of bottled fragrance corked itself shut.
I asked “What is the most Kashmiri thing that you have done?”
Here’s what Twitter answered:
I had decided that I’ll not speak in Urdu to any Kashmiri ever. So, I go to a hospital in Kashmir, the doctor speaks to me in Urdu, I speak back in Kashmiri. The doctor kept speaking in Urdu & I kept speaking in Kashmiri. And I got to know later that the doctor is from Jammu! 😂
Two days ago the biggest disappointment I had was that the roulade I was trying to make cracked when I rolled it.
The next day, the biggest tragedy I had was that an ambulance driver rammed into my car, from the side.
The same day, Indian army killed four civilians in Kashmir.
My privilege is that I wasn’t. The magnitude of your tragedies determines your privilege.
Now, I am a very average person. I have an average person’s dreams – to study, to travel, to earn, to cook and to live. Just to live. Day after day, there are people who cease to do that in Kashmir. In this “posh-teer” the occasional rainfall splutters with wails of people who could have been there. Young boys who too had average people dreams – to do something extra-ordinary, to rise above the din of mundane life. Children who have lost their eyesight and their parents. It only takes a fraction of a second for lives to turn upside down. All this while, my cakes were crumbling.
Yet there seems to be no way out. A murder by any other name is murder still. Whenever there is a very methodical, very clinical, dissection of Kashmir issue in the media, my eyes tend to roll. The experience of Kashmir cannot be written by people who see it as tourists, academic experts and least of all Indian journalists. Everytime there is a curfew in the valley, there is one person who moves from hope to despair and sinks a little more into depression. Its not always a reflection of the state of economic affairs, not completely, its psychological – existential even. What are you doing with your life? Are you making an impact on anything? Are you even doing yourself any good?
No one bothers about things like these. These are personal wars the whole city fights. Getting along day after day. One school day missed after another. One wistful longing after another. And yet, describing life in Kashmir is incomplete without this colossal waste of opportunities and desires. How battlefields are drawn and dissected and dreams are scissored to fit political narratives.
And what about the dreams of the dead? Death is so normal in Kashmir that we don’t even pause to think about it. We, the really privileged people whose tragedies include wasted cakes, go around death in Kashmir as puddles on the road. We acknowledge it, we are troubled by it, we hate the people who did it, but we move on. There are other things to be done. The ones who are gone are truly gone. These four young men who were killed in Kangan last week, might have had some ambition too. Same for many many more.