They Left…

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They packed their bags and left. At the end of the night, perhaps. In big loud trucks. Sitting with the impedimenta of occupation. They left. Their green trucks with hefty tyres. Snailing through the crowded streets of old Srinagar.

Past the ancient houses, looking mournfully at the clouds of smoke they left behind. Someone was keeping watch. Someone tallied the last bar. So many, many days. Years. There was no count. But they were leaving at last.

Huddling close in the back of the truck behind a curtain made of rope. Sharing pictures on mobile phones. Snaking their way through the city of others. The foreigners were returning at last. The exhausted city was yawning. It was a long, sleepless night.

They left behind mud walls of a collapsed bunker. Sand bags sleeping between them, like dead bodies. And shattered glass. A lot of shattered glass. Shards jutting out of wooden frames. Shards hanging on wires. Shards on the floor. Someone had been carving a place in the mud with glass.

They left behind unanswered calls. Long hours of waiting outside the iron gates. Cold wintry nights. Screams of boys and jeers of laughter. They didn’t take the rusty smell of blood. Somewhere hidden in a trunk in the back of the truck, the record of all that was never said.

The glass was left behind. And little stones in the mud. Some children would come pick them up. And play with their hands cut on glass. They left and we are burning candles again. They left, it was time.

(On the army bunker that was removed from the city)

Graves of Dolls

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16 March 2017

Little Kaniza,

I am writing your obituary (and it is such a terrible thing to say!). I don’t know the circumstances of your death; I just know that you were 7. Seven. Journalists are still to write longish pieces about the events on the day you died. They will talk about the events of the day you died like just another fight between rebels and the army, and you as a collateral damage. A supporting actor, at best. Or an extra.

I don’t agree.

Heroism is not expected of seven year olds, is it?  I can only hope that your brother makes a fast recovery from his bullet wound. What brave children are these to carry the scars of history!

People will call you martyr and pray for you. We are a vicious lot, some will even blame you for your death.

I detest reducing you to an extra in a life you didn’t even get to live fully? Who lives fully anyway? We survive stuffed with the hopelessness of desire and the ambiguity of ambition. We survive with guilt of not living fully. But we survive. And, in the least, I would have hoped the same for you. To cherish what you desired. To grow up, and someday, see the world. To grow up and let your parents have the chance to see you grow.

In a normal world, I would not be writing this. But this world is anything but normal.   A stray bullet, the media and the army will call it. The word carries a sneer with it when in stiff statements they explain the “cause of death”. Did you fall to a stray bullet?  A loose, vague, erroneously fired shot in the air. Fired erroneously, but fatally.

Let’s not normalise death, even in a conflict zone. Let’s not think that murder by any other name is acceptable. I had the same thing to say for Aamir, the 15 year old boy, who was killed just a week before. None of this is normal. This is despicable and a tragedy just for us. I grieve for you.

At a shrine in the city, I saw daffodils growing wild around the graves. The daffodils and the apricot blossoms are my favourite part of the spring. Oh, how I wish you could see them, and not lie, like a doll, in a grave.

I am not sure how Kashmir looks from up there with so many wails and wishes. But I am sure that angels will welcome you to a paradise better than this.

I pray that each year daffodils grow wild at your grave.

 

Bottling Fragrance

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Two days ago, when I opened the door of the house I met an old, unexpected fragrance. Like a guest who had been a friend once and was now patiently waiting on the stairs to make amends.

I put the locks down to greet him, the keys still in them. 
There was not a stir in the neighbourhood except the occasional shouts of boys playing cricket somewhere. The late afternoon sun spreads in an empty house. It plays hide and seek at the windows. A gentle breeze heaved from the trees. Like the gentlest touch of lips on the cheeks. A bulbul was calling out loudly from somewhere.

Many years ago, I would have returned from school, and would be out on these steps, skipping. These few hours before dark! The grass, coming on to itself, carried a hay-like fragrance. As if the earth was yawning after a long nap. Life was simpler then, or so it seemed in the company of the old friend who doesn’t speak much.

I long to hear his voice.

These days everyone spends a lot of time wondering what will happen next. We live in such uncertain times. 2016 hangs like an apprehension everywhere you go. It hides in the street corners and treads on your shadows.

Sometimes, I want to live life in the fast forward before the apprehension materializes like the ghosts of Scrooge. I think we are snatching the moments before an unknown wave crashes down on us. In this window everything must be done. All the items on the inventory crossed.  This is our normal.

I welcomed the guest in. Together we had nun chai on the stairs, as the children continued with their game of cricket somewhere.

But it was getting darker  and the stairs were cold. I need to have my wits around this. How do you bottle fragrances? And where do you store them?

In nostalgia, he replied.

And then like a whiff, he was gone.

 

Silence

 silenceDoes silence come naturally to us?

I admire words for the powers they wield. But words frighten me. There is a form of self censorship that gets built in. We live with that, slowly becoming invisible under the skin. As kids, we were taught not to point towards anything on the road if there was an armyman on the way – I still don’t do that.

Expression is easy today owing to social media, but it is not any bit safer. Slowly, a culture of silence is being built where speaking out (and not necessarily against the state), if not criminalised, is severely deterred. In 2009 private media channels were banned. Later SMS, even though not public communication, were blocked and remained blocked for four years. In 2016, Kashmir Reader was shut down and reinstated after 3 months. We haven’t really moved. All this is well known, and quite frankly was seen as nothing so extreme  from the government. If the laws allow the state to arrest anyone and not bother with leveling some sort of charges for years, gagging the press is not an extreme condition that people live with. It is “just” intimidation. Should people be scared to speak what they feel? Probably that’s what they want.

Words are contentious. An official handle of government of India tweeted a poem calling for the mass murder of Kashmiris. Parodying lyrics of a song, the ‘poem’ extolled the army to murder as many people as they could. More recently, a journalist with a “mainstream” media channel favoured “genocide” in Kashmir as a solution to rid India of whatever it calls “terrorism”. There is no shame or horror felt in calling for mass murder of Kashmiris in India now, it seems. The journalist was only voicing her opinion, of course, but we have heard the same in social media forums over and over again. In our demand to end the conflict, we have been made the perfect “other” – the dispensable, repressible other.

The innumerable strikes and protests are seen as “their” problem – something the people do of their own volition and choice – not as a response to or a reaction to a very basic fact of life here. This is the people’s problem, one that they have taken over themselves, not something that a military state should be bothered about. The perpetrators are the victims and the victims become the abusers. The media doesn’t balk at this irony. It reports this as a matter of fact. Strikes are routine. Curfews are normal. Death is usual. Life is less than life. India has settled into a culture where references to Kashmiri’s suffering must only be seen in the presumed sacrifices of their army men. This is also used to justify the torture committed by the “sacrificing armymen”. I worry where this puts us, as  a people – Kashmir is a place where such things happen. Just happen. Come to pass and are forgotten.

A fashion magazine went a step ahead and used the pellet injuries as a theme for a photo shoot. Like collecting trophies of hunted animals. It is not just insensitive, but almost criminal in its mockery of the sufferings of Kashmiris.

Oppression is an everyday story that is hardly told. Asif (you know him from here) was arrested in September when he was found sitting under the awning of a shop using his friend’s Wi-Fi connection. The policemen found him, and even though there was no stone pelting, he was arrested for rioting and possession of weapons. Now he is 24 with a police case pending against him: for using the internet. The police actually used his Facebook to justify his detention. Point to be noted, his Facebook had news from sources like Greater Kashmir, Al Jazeera (for Kashmir) and some news about ISIS and Syria. Soon after being released he went to live with his aunt in a different place.

The building of silence extends to social media too. Last year, Facebook started removing posts which mentioned Kashmir. Early on in July, Facebook suspended accounts of many activists and academicians for posting about Kashmir. So, there is a void in which we have to exist. You could however avoid the Facebook censorship by leaving off a few words from your updates, like “Kashmir”. In around August, when we were under curfew for about a month running and phones had been just restored, a friend called me from India. He asked me about Kashmir and the situation there. I did not answer. I told him that the phones in Kashmir are tapped and there is a chance that I (not he, of course) could be arrested for speaking in such a climate. He laughed and I felt embarrassed at that. But again, phone lines tapped in Kashmir is not a new thing. Caravan ran a story on this long time ago.

Just recently, the website of With Kashmir was blocked “as per the instructions of the Government of India”. With Kashmir is not a news organisation. They call themselves a bunch of “opinionated bloggers”. Blocking a site that calls itself based on opinions is ironical, and I would say silly had it not been dangerous. Opinions can easily be ignored, but the state felt it had to go ahead and block their voices – create victims out of thin air. The state creates more victims than anything else in Kashmir. (With Kashmir has since moved on to a different URL). Even the University of Cambridge disallowed a professor to write a sentence – a single sentence – on Kashmir in a paragraph about her hopes for India’s future.

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Screenshot of With Kashmir withkashmir.com

So, can you go on forcing the silence forever? Or metaphorically, will the caged bird forget its song?

I don’t think so.

Somebody will find new words for old tyranny, be assured of that. Someone will write new obituaries for old deaths.Or metaphorically, someday new birds will find the old songs to sing again.

We Are Here: Moving from Blogger to WordPress

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You brought it on, Blogger. Dont blame me now! Send my love to your new lover, and treat her better.

You know how the time flies. Five years, five long years. Does that mean nothing to you? I was so young, so naive, so new. Why else would I be writing things like this or this? This was me, five long years ago. With you. Happy! Only yesterday was the time of our lives. We were born and raised, in this autumn glaze.

I had never been so happy as I was when I found you. We went through hard times together. Does that even mean anything to you now? Don’t you remember?

I finally found a name in you. People knew me from you. “Where is Rich Autumns?” they’d ask. “Blogger, of course!”. And you in a big way are the person in making me Rich Autumns. But now that seems, like a million years ago, when we were younger and free.

But, I cant put up with this anymore. It’s not like I didn’t try. I installed and uninstalled your useless app twice. Twice. Do you even realise the misery of downloading apps on Android phones with limited memories. Well, of course you do. I know I have a fickle heart and a heaviness in my chest, but I cant keep up with your turning tables anymore.

Dear blogger, I am leaving you. And, I don’t even have the nerve to say it thrice.

But I cant help feeling we could have had it all. The Americans and the Russians and the occasional visitor from Slovenia. I could stay there, close my eyes, feel you here forever! Along with the people who wander on to the blog looking for apple season in Kashmir and reach here.

Who would have known how bittersweet this would taste?

I miss the customization Blogger had. Its all white walls here. Bare and empty. Look, dont get me wrong. I loved that you allowed me to alter whatever I wanted. But then, you removed the Dashboard and you wont reply to may queries. I mean what part of “the new layout sucks!” is hard for you to get. I can’t give you, what you think you gave me. It’s time to say goodbye to turning tables. I left behind all the memories of being read and noticed. And totally ignored.

But I’ve been walking the same way as I did. No one knows me like you do. But if I can’t make you feel my love, I think it is best to move on.

 

Hold me like I’m more than just a friend,

Rich Autumns

Giving Food in Kashmir

A lot happens over the dastarkhwan. Food comes in handy as the practical short form for love. My grandmother (like most grandmothers ) knew only two ways to show concern – making the person eat and praying for them, often together. We spread our dasterkhwan wide, just in case. In an apt symbolism, the traditional dasterkhwan (dining cloths) used to be a piece of rolled cloth which could be extended if more people arrived at mealtime.

When it comes to gifting food in Kashmir, however, nothing beats bakery. Much like boxes of confectionery in other parts of the world, we carry brown paper bags of something baked. If a child passes matric, some aunt is sure to drop by with a dozen or a half of plain cakes. Or even as many pastries. (Matriculaion is a big event in Kashmir even today.) Presenting bakery is an established gifting custom in Srinagar and, by God, we have a lot to choose from. From traditional baked fare like bakerkhwanis or the flaky puffs to all types of cakes and pastries, bakeries are well stocked in Kashmir. They do a brisk business throughout the year, but more so during the results of class 10th or 12th, or when the Haj pilgrims depart or return on the two Eids and throughout the marriage season. Yes, it is a booming enterprise and almost all bakeries have their loyal customers. The erstwhile basraq and naabed-nout (which was a vessel made from sugar crystals) are not considered fashionable anymore in the city. There was a time when, in Srinagar, sweetmeats and confectioneries were limited in availability and options. This has largely changed over the years, and brought in a new wedding custom of sending a copper tray full of assorted sweets.

But nothing says celebration like the good ol’ wazwan. While cakes are a standard, wazwan isn’t considered too outlandish a gift on certain occasions. Of course for that, as in life, you have to pick your moment. Families of  to be married couples frequently exchange trays of wazwan delicacies – a trayful of whole chicken, or ristas or may be the full wazwan – a few pieces of each item (seven in all). Of course the receiving side doesn’t keep all of it to itself – it is further parceled it off to as many siblings and cousins as it can be. Gifting wazwan to people outside Kashmir is even easier now, now that it is available packaged in tins.

As our customs progress with time there is a timeless tradition of giving almonds in felicitation. There is something about the hay coloured, paisley shaped dry fruit that speaks Kashmir like nothing else. During weddings, almonds and toffees and ten rupees notes folded in fans are showered on the bride and the groom from copper trays. Students are given packets of almonds on passing exams. Just about any celebration is incomplete without a few kilos of almonds popping up somewhere. (There is also a wedding song dedicated to almonds). In rural areas, walnuts are given in place of almonds.

Winters are the season for harissa, and our long winters would be longer without it. If you know a high ranking bureaucrat, know for sure that he or she will be receiving a pot of harissa in winters! Again, families of to-be-married or newly married couples send harissa to each other, as they do cooked fish. Fish in Kashmir is fried and slow cooked with vegetables for hours and hours and served cold. (And prepared in secret, without fanfare till ready.)

I am not aware of the gifting norms in villages, but when I visited an acquaintance in a village his family would not let me return empty handed. Quickly was the greenest gourd clipped from the vine, and a dozen or so aubergines and a fresh kohlrabi and packed for me to carry back to the city. Another acquaintance from Islamabad, make sit a point to send a box of sweet Islamabad kulchas on every Eid, for old times’ sake.

Recently, on one occasion I was about to leave the shrine of Syed Sahab at Sonwar, when a woman handed me a tin foil box of halwa, I put it in my pocket and thanked her.  On most days, in one part of the city or the other, you will find someone distributing taher to wayfarers and passersby. There is no one particular reason why taher would be prepared – from a good news (like engagement, passing exams) to bad news (like illness) from seeing nightmares to ward off the evil eye. On specific days people prepare food to be given in charity. Each revered saint has a day, 3rd of each lunar month for Naqshband Sahab, 6th for Hazrat Ameer Kabir RA, 11th for Ghous-ul Azam Dastgeer, 13th for Sheikh Hamza Makhhdoomi  RA, so on and the devotees give out food on those days. It is a centuries old custom and the food could be anything from nun chai to a complete wazwan. We are a simple traditional people, but we have our quirks.

We have preserved this generosity of spirit through the most difficult of times. Whenever the city has been ravaged by war, we have tried to trace our steps back. Diminished, but not extinguished. In 2010 when tourists were trapped in hotels due to the curfews and unrest, the small bed and breakfast establishments ran out of food. People around the localities provided supplies including fuel to cook the food everyday, till all the tourists could leave. just last year in the months of curfew, people donated food and meat to the community kitchens at hospitals. I wonder, will we escape all wars unscathed. But hope lies at the bottom of the taeher daeg and you have to divvy up the yellow rice for it to be spread all round.

PS: For the uninitiated “taher” is a rice preparation dyed yellow with turmeric and fried lightly, topped with browned onions.  It is what you see in the picture above.

(Thank you, Ms. Marryam H Reshii, for your invaluable inputs)

Flake by Flake

Snow was the first event of this year. Yesterday was the first day of winters.

It snowed all day yesterday. In thick flakes. Like plumes falling from heaven. The city must have felt decorated and loved. Truly, for once.

Outside the mosque after the Friday prayers a small boy was waiting for his cohorts, armed with a ball of snow in his hands. Ready to fight! There was skid mark. Someone had tumbled too.

The Shrine of Ghousul Azam Dastgeer at Khanyar was lit for the Urs. A number of hawkers and vendors crowded the square near the shrine. Their black stoves and skillets hot and fuming over yellow flames. The shrine, just like the snow on its steeples, an abode of peace. A group of women under umbrellas had huddled around a man selling crockery. A vegetable seller watched over a tub of bright red vegetable pickle.

In the city few cars plied, very slowly and carefully meandering their way through the piles of snow and slush. All the roads were a crisscross of grey tracks left by cars in white. A small girl, perhaps returning from a tuition center, waited to cross the road, eating a ball of snow in her hand. Her nose and cheeks as red as her pheran, she didn’t seem to mind the rush around her. The white peaceful halo around the city was unbroken by any noise. A few young men were posing under the awnings of shops – in bright jackets and gelled hair.

The stray dogs shivered near the garbage bins and the army men seemed to have receded to their dens.

The white spreads out like a canvas. Full of future and possibility, shining – even under a dull sky. A wave of joy in the forlorn city. We can romanticize this sudden burst of bland endless, but it is all in the small whispers under tall collars, in careful walks over slippery roads and feeling distanced from the ground that you walk on. Feeling a new breath of air being passed around like a joint. Feeling merry for no reason. In the grey afternoon the sun would dim and disappear. The quiet of the snow violated by the explosion of the transformer. And in the dark, nothing else was heard again.

When we were young we would count the icicles hanging from the eaves. We would hide “treasure” in the snow and then go on a quest to find it. Jumping from the walls on to the piles of snow. The hands would get numb and the fingertips would ache, but no one bothered. There was treasure hidden in the garden which had to be excavated before the sun set.

Then after  a few days, the skies would clear and the sun would gently come out. Gently, because nothing is harsh in the memories of childhood. The icicles would drip and the snow from the roof would fall down with mighty rumbles. The pigeons would come out of the coves and the sparrows would fly over the trees.

The trudged-upon snow in the garden, its treasures now gone, would melt.

Just as it had fallen. Flake by flake.

(Pic Credit: @Gaash__)