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)

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Somehow We Survived

I will be repeating myself when I say that Srinagar is a cold, cold place. The wind blows little needles in the face and waters the eyes. In my dreamy, detached, ever hopeful existence, Srinagar is so many miles away that the only things that anchor me to reality are the cold and tea. And by tea I mean Nun Chai with its ever comforting warmth like a hug from a worthy friend.

Early this year, I remember telling a friend that this is going to be a good year. We were going on the Boulevard Road and the sun was about to set on a day in the prime of spring. He agreed. Now, we are just moving from a curfew and lock down of five months. Everyone who knows anything about us knows that this is a fragile, fragile situation. Kashmir is like a samovar full of tea, with embers keeping it simmering all the time.

Among the many disappointments we had this year, I will remember with gratitude the sanctuary nun chai afforded me as we spent the summer locked up inside our homes, reading and watching the leaves turn. Outside, the curfews raged, and so many young men were killed. Everyday we mourned for them. Everyday we died a little. Everyday we made tea and thanked God that we are getting by. The leaves faded from green to gold and then left the trees barren; and the skies shifted from blue to gray. The colour of my brew was still pink. Like roses the colour of broken promises.

But somehow we survived. My friends (and sometimes random people one meets by happenstance) from India ask me how did we manage for so many days with no markets open and little money. I have no answer. We just did – with patience and some luck. And lots of resilience. I spent some weeks of the year in Delhi. I had nun chai over there too. A pale, milky brew it came out. Quite out of place. Like the stranger in me. Its flavour lost in the heat of India’s plains. There is no decent way to reconcile to the disappointment of a vile cup of tea. I needed to be back home.

As we end this year on a very somber note with the war raging in one part of the world and uncertainty looming over ours, I look at this empty cup of nun chai. The spent dark brown leaves have collected at the base. Someone may stare at the shape to read the tea leaves. Will the coming year lose its promise in the prime of spring too?

This has been a long, long year. The summer never seemed to end and the autumn dragged its feet – its cold, beautiful, scarred feet. I don’t want to sound pedantic. On days like these I find heart in the fact, that when everything goes wrong there will be nun chai to fall back to. It is the promise of a very old custom. It shall forever bring me back home.

(PS: Today is “International Tea Day”, and thank you Mr. Ross Chambers for suggesting that I write something about Nun Chai on this day. I must thank the shared joy of nun chai for being the source of many a conversation on social media with strangers and a lot of inspiration. On that note, I had this year before the curfews began a memorable occasion of having nunchai in the huts of very friendly nomads in a meadow tucked somewhere in the mountains of Baramulla. Prepared freshly on a wood fire, the tea was as buttery as salty it was and had a very subtle but distinct aroma of smoke.)

For a recipe of nun chai check this post.

The Emperor has No Clothes

There was recently a fashion show in India where pellet gun injuries were used as an “effect”. To showcase “Kashmiriyat”, none the less.

It takes time for such things to go down!

In other words, “an Indian fashion house used injuries caused by Indian forces to Kashmiris as a make up effect to sell expensive clothing”.

I can feel the lump in my throat.

India for long has been trying to appropriate Kashmiri culture, but this level of insensitivity is irksome. And frightening. There were simpler times when we had to deal with movies which dealt with Kashmiri stereotypes and Indian directors’ fancies of Kashmiri people, like belles in heavy costumes singing in shikaras, to the pretty shepherdess or people who live lives so isolated they cannot exist outside the movies. Now, it has become plain sinister.

This summer, Indian forces indiscriminately shot pellet guns at unarmed people destroying lives and families of victims, and now some random designer thought it appropriate to use the injuries for “effect”. Using a form of torture, or a fancy weapon used to blind Kashmiri populace en-masse, to represent Kashmiri culture may be a new low, but somehow fits in the unequal relationship India has with Kashmir. Since India has been hunting Kashmiris, and allowed its laws to do so, for the last 26 years atleast, it is just collecting trophies now.

A model walking down the ramp with a bandage and a faux wound may look dramatic, but where is the empathy in that? In April when Chetan Bhagat wrote a mindless (and heartless) letter to Kashmiri youth, the imperialist over tones were barely veiled. With this fashion show, the designers have sought to normalize the torture and victimization of Kashmiris. So as if patronizing was not enough, India seeks to trivialize and mock the suffering caused by its armed forces. If I am reading this correctly, is death the new fashion? Death is a part of Spring – Summer collection? I would be amused at how this sounds, had it not been so tragically accurate. Death was a part of the Kashmir’s spring and summer this year, and instead of apologizing, or as we keep repeating, empathizing, India has designers making light of it.

It is this culture that allows the unsuspecting Indian to continue with the occupation of Kashmir and churn newer and fancier justifications for it. That the whole culture of Kashmir can be treated as a commodity to be modified and sold as per convenience. In this is a sense of superiority that the military occupation affords the creative minds, where voices unheard cease to exist.

We cannot however ignore the morbidity that the designers chose to imply. By calling pellet guns a part of Kashmiri culture, they have given it the all the necessary justifications an imperialist would like. Had this been done as a protest, it would have implied that India is forcing the pellets on people of Kashmir and thereby brutalising their culture and history. But done otherwise (and with commercial intents), the implication is that “we rule Kashmir with the stick and guns, and that is so ingrained in the discourse that it is an acceptable facet of the populace.” The fashion show is a celebration of this gift to Kashmir by India. Perhaps the designers thought the pellet would be the new paisley, just another pattern from Kashmir, no matter  how removed from humanity it may be. And to draw this connection between the motif and the macabre is the ‘achievement’ of their art? The very idea that the lives of Kashmiris can be so cheap that injuries inflicted by an unpunishable army can be glamorised and weaponry used to blind and maim be celebrated is a major element of this nationalistic pride that people gain by “holding on” to the territory of Kashmir. In the same sense, it is also the cause that lends rationale to calling for a genocide in Kashmir (as done by an official handle of a Govt agency and a journalist with mainstream media, among others).

This is utter disgrace. An affront to humanity and indeed, art.

India and the Kashmir Ad

Dear Admakers from India,
There has been a spate of Kashmir-focused advertisements in India media recently. I feel we need to talk. This didnt need to be elaborated, but here is the deal, you seem to not understand Kashmir.
It started with a benign ad by an electronic payment gateway. A man somewhere in rural Kashmir makes an e-payment for some spare parts and produces electricity so that kids can play at night. (At night? No, sir, not in Kashmir. Its neither safe nor tradition for kids to be out of homes after Maghrib prayers have been called out. Ask around.)
Then came the incredibly cute ad from a bank set to a traditional Kashmiri rhyme. Personally, I dont find the ad to have much in common with Kashmir except the background score, but anyway.
Then it became sinister. As all things Kashmiri tend to do, when India starts meddling.
A telecom operator thought it would be a good idea to sell phones by embarrassing Kashmir shawl merchants. The ad was the subject of  a law suit and was taken off air. I am not sure if the people behind this ad apologized, which as professionals they should have.
Then came the this ad which conveniently chose to ignore the army’s atrocities in Kashmir to portray them as friends of Kashmiri villagers.
Not to mention, the Kashmir tourism ad which so calmly ignores Jammu. Eh? (The background score is gorgeous!)
This latest ad which uses the Indian Army is what got me to this table with you. As a Kashmiri, who is appalled by the level of knowledge Indians in general have about Kashmir, I find it to be an attempt to portray Kashmir as a village utopia which it is not. The address is all wrong. It of course creates a good impression on the target audience, but ignores certain basics about Kashmir.
On a side note, one still deals with people (highly qualified professionals) who ask “Kashmir has its own language?”, “Isnt Kashmiri and Urdu the same thing?” etc. etc. Off the topic, but yeah, that happens.
Unlike what people see in these ads, a pheran clad man running towards an army camp is more likely to be shot at or arrested. Not to mention, denied entry into the camp in the very least. I am sure your research would have brought up the difficult dynamics of the relationship locals share with the Indian Army. Can I tell you a secret? We are not really fond of the army.
For an Army camp to be set in the background of a “life long” friendship will require a collective forgetfulness of last so many years in Kashmir. The ad is a convenient brush over the disturbing realities of living in a place so militarized that it is constantly at war. Indians on an average are blissfully unaware of the undercurrents of the relationship between locals and the army. It may appear neutral and accommodating, but beneath the tranquil facade is the relationship of distrust forged by fear and reinforced by the history on Indian Army in Kashmir. Men like Bashir of the ad have been murdered by the dozen by the Indian Army with impunity. The fact that the other person is allowed to kill you on any frivolous basis is hardly the ground for life long friendship. See my point?
But the problem is set deeper. The ads have hardly any value in the contemporary Kashmir setting. Kashmir is at best a prop. A mountainous background giving the idea of a far flung place. A place with limited access. It ads value to the brand, of course, and simultaneously beats a subtle nationalistic drum, I know that. But then, why in Kashmir? You could have done it at some place in India where people are actually fond of the armymen?
The friendly Army and the friendly villagers using a friendly online portal to share baby pics on Whatsapp. It is a furtherance of the propaganda posters which the Army puts up every now and then around Srinagar. Of course, Srinagar is of least interest to you. It is neither rural nor inaccessible. We have cities too, you see. And contrary to what you may assume, we do have people who speak fluent un-accented English and have an immaculate Urdu pronunciation. I wonder why no one finds them. They are all over.
Granted that the tragedy of Kashmir is not going to sell you any products, the least you could do is not to use it to sell any more. A little perspective is all that I am talking about. When you speak of Kashmir and your army in its context, see it how Kashmiris would see it. At least try. Your ads will come out different.
A funny thing happened while I was writing this letter, you have come up with another ad. There are two kids in this ad, running after an army truck waving them goodbye. I am reminded of two episodes from my life in Kashmir by this scene. Want to hear? (You dont have much choice). Once, I was on my way to school and an army truck passed by me. There was a little boy, no bigger than the girl in the ad (if memory serves, he even looked similar). The truck scared him so much that he ran and hid himself behind me. Seeking refuge behind a stranger was, to that small child, the better option than just walking alongside the truck. Another incident happened when I was 12 years old. I was going by an auto rickshaw, one wintry day and an army-man stopped the auto and directed us to come out. Being only 12, I thought he must be calling the driver and not me. But, boy oh boy, was I wrong. First he scolded me for not getting out when called, to which I apologized. And then he asked for my identity card – which I did not have. I tried explaining that I didn’t have one and he could check with my school and all, but to no avail. He wanted to detain me or something till the auto driver stepped in and pleaded. Showed his identity card and assured the armyman that I was just a kid (because pre-teens sometimes can be mistaken for adults, you know). The armyman let me go finally but not without a tremble in my spine which had nothing to do with the cold weather.
Enough of nostalgia, but do you get my point? Next time if you want to place your product in the Kashmiri context, find a theme which is less embarrassing.
Laughing all the way on the hilarity of your ads,

Rich Autumns

The Blogs of Kashmir

In 2011 when I started blogging, I looked around the room of Kashmiri bloggers. There were many, for sure, but not all were to be found on their writing desks. So many people had created blogs and forgotten. That was disheartening. As a novice blogger having a quiet blogosphere meant that there would be no readers too.

But there were some who were still around. Sameer Bhat was not blogging as much as he used to, but his blog is one of the most beautiful to read. I spent hours browsing his old posts. (Read his description of Delhi’s Chor Bazar and Sopore’s Fish Market and the more recent post on the epic love story of Habba Khatoon and Yusuf Shah Chak). Then there was Speaking Chinar, writing longish articles on mainly politics (though there is a delightful one written on the politics of pheran and another on the uses of kangri). There were others too though it took me a long time to find them.

In some time I found out the blogs of Muhammad Faysal, Sabbah Haji, and many more.

Francesca Recchia, who collaborates for the  Samavar blog, had asked me once about other Kashmiri bloggers. The result was a small list which we maintained on a Google Doc. But, a later Twitter discussion led to more discoveries for which we are largely thankful to Dr. Haamid Peerzada. The full list can be seen here.

There is an enormous wealth of bloggers from Kashmir craving for readership. Even though, there are many to choose from, Kashmiri blogosphere suffers from a few limitations. Most of the blogs are political in nature – have something or the other to do with politics. This might be expected, as politics is the most significant aspect of everything that has to do with Kashmir in the contemporary world. People do try to make sense of this overbearing arches of politics by turning artistic, but there are limitations to that. So many of the bloggers dissect the political climate without mincing the words. There is another reason to that as well, one that appears to be more pertinent. Since the discourse on Kashmir is handled heavily by those sitting on the other side of the fence, there is little heard from the Kashmiris. The blogs give air to that voice and sense to the crumbling world of Kashmir’s partisans. And in that every little squeak counts.

Poetry and politics seems to define the blogs of Kashmir, as in much of Kashmir. Sadly, there are few bloggers writing the stories of contemporary Kashmir. Vinayak Razdan, however, maintains an impressive blog about Kashmir’s contemporary culture and kitsch.

Digital SLRs have been however very kind to Kashmir. Though there are no dedicated blogs or Tumblrs for the ancient pics of Kashmir (there are a couple of Facebook pages though), new photography blogs abound. Check out Sajad Rafeeq’s blog.

There are a lot more wondrous voices from Kashmir. I hope someday we will be able to hear them and heed to them.

Update:
Read a blogpost by Francesca about this: A Wealth of voices in Kashmir

Thank God For Little Pleasures – XXV

There is nothing that nun-chai cannot accomplish.

Yesterday, when Francesca Recchia, Marryam Reshii and I decided to form the #NunChaiFanClub, the Koshur tweeples opened up their hearts to nunchai and buttered girdahs. The readers may know Francesca Recchia and Marryam Reshii from this previous post.

We have the whole conversation storified on the the Samavar blog. Please take some time to read it.

A few random snippets follow:

 

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Hans Christian Ostro

             Even today there are no trains
             into the Vale of Kashmir.
And those defunct trains – Kashmir Mail,
Srinagar Express – took
pilgrims only till the last of plains.
There, in blue-struck buses, they forsook
the monsoon. What iron could be forged to rail
like faith through mountains
star-sapphired, by dawn amethyst?
It’s not a happy sound…
There is such pathos in the cry of trains:
Words breathed aloud but inward-bound.
Bruised by trust      O Heart bare amidst
fire          arms turquoise with veins
from love’s smoke-mines            blessed infidel
who wants your surrender?
I cannot protect you: these are my hands.
I’ll wait by the deep jade river;
you’ll emerge from the mist of Jewel Tunnel:
O the peaks one commands –
A miracle! – from there … Will morning
suffice to dazzle blind
beggars to sight? Whoso gives life to a soul
shall be as if he had to all of mankind
given life. Or will your veins’ hurt lightning –
the day streaked with charcoal –
betray you, beautiful stranger
sent to a lovelorn people
longing of God? Their river torn apart,
they’ve tied waves around their ankles,
mourning the train that save its passenger
will at night depart
for drowning towns. And draped in rain
of the last monsoon-storm,
a beggar, ears pressed to that metal cry,
will keep waiting on a ghost-platform,
holding back his tears, waving every train
Good-bye and Good-bye.
– Agha Shahid Ali
From “The Country Without a Post office”

From Left to Right: Hans Christian Ostro, Dirk Hasert, Paul Welles, Keith Mangan and Don Hutchings
PS: In July 1995, Al-Faran kidnapped 4 Western trekkers from Pahalgam. They demanded that in return of the hostages, 21 of their jailed comrades be released by India. Four days later one hostage escaped. But on that very day, 2 more trekkers were abducted. Hans Christian Ostro from Norway was one of the two. The other was Dirk Hasert from Germany.

Hans Christian Ostro was beheaded and his body found in the upper reaches of Pahalgam on 13 August. He was 27. What became of the other hostages is not known with certainty.