The Youth of Kashmir Does Stuff

Ethe youth (1).jpgveryone 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.

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Coffee Tables

Ambitions. Srinagar is too small a place for ambitions. Across the table, at Books and Bricks Cafe, B told me how he lost his job abroad and how the dimness of Srinagar wears him down. He had to return when the floods came and destroyed his house. Then he had decided to return for good or temporarily. He wasn’t sure. 

Outside, the large windows of the cafe, constables in a police Gypsy were shooing away cars to make way for a VIP vehicle. Civilian cars were lined on the side, as a guarded procession passed by.
Sigh. Let your ambitions accommodate this too. This is a police state.

We have noticed with delight how one cafe after another opened in Srinagar and we discovered how much we loved coffee. Coffee, in Kashmir, had lived for a long time under the long shadow cast by Nun chai and ‘Lipton’ tea. It was the drink your father or the busy uncle had once in a while and the one your mother never liked. Yet somehow, now we have one cafe opening after another and coffee is the new cool in Srinagar.

No. We are not complaining.

At Books and Bricks, a cafe opened by two friends, the ambiance is warm and inviting. The walls are lined with old Readers’ Digest’s pages and the ceiling is of old apple boxes. And there are books, lots of them. Charles Dickens to James Patterson. “Pride and Prejudice” to “Narrow Road to The Deep North”. Also the music. The first time I was there they were playing Sweet Home Alabama which was nice. But the second time I was there, Adele was on, and it was symptomatic to my friend’s tale of woe.

There is so much yearning in that cafe, that I may return there just for that (and the burgers, of course). The owners of the cafe are around and approachable. They even requested for a Facebook review in passing, and I said to myself, “Boy! You are getting a blogpost!”. (Though then I had planned to write an entirely different post.) It is the new breed of entrepreneurship in Kashmir, well educated professionals with a desire to succeed, and if coffee is what they are pinning hopes on, I say it is a clever choice.

I wish this duo all the luck and also hope they expand into a slightly bigger location which would really help with the “reading cafe” ambitions.

By comparison Coffea Arabica is an old haunt cafe. On an extremely dreary March day, I was to meet a friend there for coffee and pasta. He wasn’t pleased. He had hired a new assistant, Asif, in his office and was appalled by the standard of education the kid had been put through. But instead of firing the kid, my friend decided to coach him in the basics, things he should have already learnt in two years after tenth and three years of college. He wanted to give Asif a chance, despite his lack of basic skill and clouded thoughts. Everyone, must be given a chance, after all. He said he had had assistants slow on the pick up before, but there was something about Asif that made him skeptical. I thought he was just too involved, being a Kashmiri.

We are not risking anything; we are gambling away our life. It was 7:30 in the evening and Srinagar was closing down. The last few Tata Sumos were ferrying the last few people back home. Two coffees later we left, wondering if everyone else found this city of tourists that difficult to live in.

PS: This is not a review of the restaurants. 

PPS: While the events described are mainly/broadly true, the names are not.

Tea With Mother

(Part of this post was written in April, soon after the tragic road accidents of school buses.)

This March, schools opened to some really bad news. Usually there are three months of winter vacations. The vacations are always a hurried affair. The government on a cold wintry day issues a sudden notice announcing a  date to close the schools. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Three months later the kids reappear in school uniforms, in their old chairs with their ‘winter homework’ done and ready for ‘submission’.

These winters passed – cold and frigid, as winters usually pass in Kashmir. The spring that followed, however, has not been a pleasant one. With continuous curfews and strikes, Kashmir breathed small conscious breaths of life between an imposed normalcy and an assumed curfew. There is peace, if  you perceive it through a lens man’s glare. But the pictures themselves are silent. They show the world as it passes by the soundproof glasses of high-profile cars, in glimpses and snaps. But outside the car, the world is neither quiet nor peaceful. Just like a samovar, it hides burning embers inside to keep itself brewing.

***

On 4th April, a school bus skidded off the road and fell into a gorge in Kashmir. Nine kids died in the accident. Apparently, the bus driver had lost control over the bus. When rescue teams arrived, seven kids were found dead already.

A few weeks before that another young man, Tahir Sofi, was killed. A probe is pending. Tahir wasn’t the first young man to die this year. In the weeks following Afzal Guru’s hanging dozens were injured. A few died. These fresh martyrs have no names. No one tries to find an excuse for their deaths.

In 2010, the great summer of bloodshed, a hundred and twenty people, most of them below thirty, were killed. Many of them were just school going teenagers. They still had schools to attend, degrees to achieve and jobs to look for. Things that occur to normal people. In normal places.

Painful stories are left behind. Greater Kashmir reported the story of a father who seeing his daughter had already died, tried to save his son. He missed his daughter’s funeral only to have his son’s funeral too. Both the kids died. Swathed in blood and bandages, their young tender bodies were brought home and handed over to their mothers. There shall be no more school, no more homework, no worrying for tests. No life. No marriages for daughters, no weddings for sons. Destiny in a sleight of hand has wiped out an immense dimension from their lives.

In 2010, the mother of one of the many kids who died applied henna on his little lifeless hands. In Kashmir, boys do not decorate their hands with henna, except on their wedding when house ladies take turns to apply henna on the groom’s little finger of the right hand. The mother would never get that chance. She seized that opportunity from fate, before sending the little bridegroom away forever. The father of another youth who died that year, wanted the mourners to sing wedding songs. He too was sending his son away. He wanted the farewell to be one filled with prayers of hope and happiness.

More than a thousand youngsters (many of them in their early teens) are booked under PSA. When the appear before court, the first argument is not the offence. It is the age of the detainee.

On 22 May this year, Suhail was critical after receiving pellets in the head. Two things. One that he is 19. Second, that the police and paramilitary shot him in the head. Shot to kill.

***

It is as if the last twenty years of turmoil have cast a long, dark shadow. They carnage hasnt stopped yet. The summer so far has been peaceful. Surely the number of tourists will go up, and that being a new criteria of measuring normalcy in Kashmir, the government will bask in the feeble sunlight of a ‘normal’ Kashmir. But normalcy in Kashmir is like an eel, it slips the moment you spot it. It’s never too long before it is lost under the slush pile of a thousand issues.

This story of thousands of young men and women of Kashmir, is much like the story of Kashmir itself: the valley too beautiful for itself, located at the wrong coordinates of the globe, ravaged by war and torn across by an extremely uncertain future.; its young people, born at the wrong time, faced with little prospects and little hope of doing well at home.

***

Saifullah, an engineer by education, died as a militant of Hizbul Mujahideen. He had asked his mother prepare a cup of tea for him while he went out. He never returned. His mother kept  waiting with the tea.

If we were to go about Kashmir, in the evening just as the ladies are preparing tea, we would find many such mothers waiting with tea cups. Their sons don’t come home for tea. Or for anything else. For these sons, there was no linking them to any organisation – who were they? what were they?, we do not know. Many of them were taken by the armed forces, often at night, and then we know that they vanished or “disappeared”  and that their mothers are still waiting. Some of them have been waiting with such cups for more than twenty years. I am sure they wash and wipe them, and don’t let any dust get on the cups of their sons. I am also sure that they still keep the tea brewing for them. What if the cups are never filled again? What if they are? What will these mothers tell the sons if they ever return? If these mothers were to suddenly come across these sons they have been waiting for decades? If we go prying and eaves dropping, we would hardly bear the pain that will flavour their teas. Some of these mothers assemble in a park in Srinagar once every month or so, and remind the world of the embers that keeps their worlds on fire.

Twenty years is a long time. But a lifetime is even longer. I pray Suhail, who is still in hospital, recovers to have tea with his mother.

 

Two Pink Dresses

Malala Yousufzai is a young Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban because she was against their idea of banning girls from schools. She wanted to be educated, wanted to go to school. She is 14, and currently hospitalized in Britain after a surgery she underwent in Peshawar. Her condition remains precarious. 

A lot of things are not right.

These are terrible times when we expect political maturity from 14 years old. Children are supposed to have free minds. Not corrupted. They are supposed to fall not in line with any propaganda, until someone comes along and washes their brains, by which time, they have usually matured. Children are not dangerous. They can’t be. They learn from what they see around them. And so did Malala. You can’t hold her responsible for that. But most importantly, children learn. They can be educated. Old people cannot. There is a certain adage about old dogs and new tricks, but I won’t repeat that here.

Malala’s blog was her bane. She wrote about the disruption of normal life in Mingora, her town, and living under a cloud of terror. She wrote that “she wore her pink dress to school when the principal asked them not to wear uniforms any more so as to not attract attention.”

Farzana is a Kashmiri. She was born last month and abandoned by her parents at birth. Abandoned. Left lying the hospital, just like that. Like a polythene bag they forgot to take back after picnic. She had a cleft lip and palate. Babies that small are busy in a world of their own. If they realised the grief of this one, Farzana would have questioned her parents. And questioned them woefully. But she left the questions and woes to be decided later on. After repeated appeals to various NGOs for adoption, Farzana was adopted by a childless couple two weeks after her birth. It is customary to dress girls in pink. And boys in blue. Some kind people at the GB Pantt, hospital dressed Farzana in pink woolens.


***

I hadn’t heard about Yousufzai till she was shot, but she somehow, reminded me of a couplet by Urdu poet Moulana Hali. One of our Urdu teachers in school had a great talent for recalling verses. She’d recite them very passionately too. Once our class room had to be used as exam centre for the Board Exams of Class 12th. She enquired which school had been allotted this centre  and it turned out to be some all-girls school. At once she rubbed the blackboard clean and wrote this verse for the girls who would sit in the class. I copied it down. 


ا ے  ماؤ ،بہنو ، بیٹیو  دنیا  کی زینت  تم  سے  ہے
ملکوں کی بستی  ہو تم ہی قوموں کی عزت تم سے ہے 
تم گھر کی ہو شہزادیاں’ شہروں کی ہو آبادیاں 
غمگیں دلوں کی شادیاں ، دکھ سکھ میں راحت تم سے ہے 



(Aye maao behno betiyo, dunya ki zeenat tum say hai
Mulkon ki basti ho tum hi, Qomon ki Izzat tum say hai
Tum ghar ki ho shehzaadiyan, shehron ki ho aabadiyan
Ghamgeen dilon ki shaadiyan, dukh sukh mein raahat tum say hai)

Bridges from Where to Wherever

Look what the wind blew into Kashmir! Autumn winds are notorious. They blow all sorts of things hither and thither. People catch cold. Sneeze. Cough. And then all is forgotten in the falling auburn chinar leaves. 

In the past two months two prominent politicians from India have visited the Kashmir University. Impressive, one would say. Looking at also that this second visit carried top industrialists too from India, Kashmir could rejoice in their blessed presence. But this year, Kashmir has already rejoiced quite a bit. And romanced too, with Shahrukh Khan’s movie shoot in Pahalgam and Ladakh (- well, as much romance as he could do while playing an army officer – which, knowing him, is more than enough to last a lifetime.)

But, two weeks and two politicians later Kashmir’s autumn air is no richer. I don’t feel it. The industrialists didn’t add anything much too. But surely the air in Kashmir University, their playing field, would have felt different. Choked with so many policemen inspecting everything from mobile phones to writing pens. The policemen have their way of checking things. I was once asked to show my cell phone for ‘checking’ at an event where the Chief Minister (not Omar Abdullah, a different one) was visiting. The policeman took my phone turned it around, opened the flap, closed it, opened it again, pressed a button or two and was assured that it did neither exploded nor triggered any explosion. So he returned it to me. I asked him if it was necessary to frisk me every time I passed by, and he said, in an irritated voice, “Haan, chief Minister aaya hai. Koi lallu-panju nahi aaya hai.”

So naturally security over mobile phones has to be beefed up when the visitor happens to be the President of India or the General Secretary of India’s ruling party. No lalluing-panjuing there! The university was turned into a garrison, replicating the crackdowns of the 90s with policemen beating every track. Policemen on every entry point. On every exit point. On watch towers. On tree tops. Policemen in the conference halls. In civvies, camouflaging as students. This lead to the belief that it was a police university, but that view was quickly exchanged for one favouring a police state. And things were, in general, ‘settled for ever’.

Both the visits were boycotted too. But the university succeeded in finding some students to attend to the visitors. For the second visit, the guidelines were clear and well worded. Taking care of natural allergies of the visitors no bearded students were allowed. Also, the university wanted some ‘neutral students’. (Neutral, not neutered. Mind the gap!) Then there were guidelines regarding the questions to be asked. The foreigners were not supposed to have come prepared for a difficult test. So there should be no questions like ‘why are SMS still banned in the Valley?’ easy questions, may be from the book, “100 ways to Understand Kashmir’s pain”, or “Kashmir’s pain for Dummies” which fulfilled their purpose of visit.

Did the University take choreography lessons for making the students stand up for the Indian National Anthem? Last time the university had trouble finding students who would stand for the ‘Jana Gana Mana’. Reports were, the students had gathered outside the convocation hall where Rahul Gandhi was giving a speech, and sang the Pakistani National Anthem. Standing.


Meanwhile Rahul Gandhi did his bit in ‘connecting’ to the youth. The middle-aged bachelor wore jeans and a jacket to the venue, shunning his white kurta – a complete university student costume. Talked of a student exchange program. Got the industrialists to talk of jobs and employment, and how the one wish they had was to see Kashmiris working for them in various locations. However, there was also a small talk of an upcoming cement plant in Kashmir. (Natural resources, well, of course!) The word “trust” was thrown around a lot, but it wasn’t explained to the youth how trust and PSA went hand-in-hand. But those were difficult queries  and were not allowed.

And thus they concluded Building Bridges. From where to wherever.