My Cakes Were Crumbling

Two days ago the biggest disappointment I had was that the roulade I was trying to make cracakes.jpgcked 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.

 

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They Left…

they left (1).jpg

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)

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.

Air Full of Prayers

We are all surviving on varied diets of Babribeoul. Of that, more than anything else in this heat, I am sure.


Temperatures are up this Ramadan, and the days are long. So, naturally, tempers are running short. The other day at the bank, a customer was angry at the clerk for calling him “Yaar” (Informal: friend). It was sometime during the first week of Ramadan, and not everyone was adjusting that well.

Ramadan is a low key affair in Kashmir. There are no popular night time markets. There are no fairs. And for the most part, markets are deserted except during the days before Eid. I guess, the sun is keeping the people indoors.

But the early morning Sehris are cool. The young guy in the mosque hastily shouting “Waqt -te- Sahar” three times to officiate the hours before the Sahar Khan with his drums and bugle makes the rounds. There was a time when every mohalla had a Sahar Khan, who was more or less a known figure. Now no one is sure of his identity. He is just a sound a drum beat in the wee hours, a knock on the iron gate – an audible guard of the community’s faith.

The new Imam in the mosque is good looking young guy with a neatly trimmed beard and a stirring enunciation of the Quran. And there are a lot of new faces. Many young people are absent. But even with a new Imam and new followers, the prayers are still the same. After each congregation, there is a brief pause. An Aameen hangs in the air as a collective sigh of the people who have agreed, heart broken themselves, with every word the imam has uttered – asking for the well being of all people from Kashmir to Palestine.

Yet, the one thing the imam seldom prays for is hope. If I could ask for one thing tonight – I would ask to be hopeful. For God to take away the leaden despair from our lives and fill us with the faith of  a better tomorrow. Things start looking up, when we do. And tonight, I need that more than anything else.

Twos and Threes

For a brief moment he gathered his thoughts, and then let go. He did not like what he saw.

The stranger had re-emerged. In this yet unknown city, where he tried hard to belong, he had anchored his heart and let his mind sink. His precious idea of life was far from realized, but so was his life. He wasn’t dead yet. It was just another year passed. It was just a birthday.

The only two greetings he had had were from an old friend, who had bothered to remind him that he was fast growing old, and Google. He was somehow grateful for that.


Why must it rain today? The sky was overcast, and as he looked out at it, it only seemly to grow darker. Clouds kept moving in, and yet there was no rain. A tattered blue tarpaulin sheet waved aimlessly at him, a black cat moved under a log and white pollen from poplars floated in the air.  
There will not be any celebrations. He felt that he had reached the mountains to find there was no fire, just gusts of cold air. A thunder clapped loudly in the sky and the electricity snapped. For all that had happened to him, he had played with the poorest cards he had. Twos and threes, against aces and kings. Even the occasional Jacks.
In his room, he thought of something to wish for. Something, he would carry into the new year. Something that would get him through this night. He blew the candle. I need more hope tonight.
And, then it rained.

Appeals and Answers

~I~

The old man was no hero. He had never been, and it is very important to understand that.

Appeals & Answers – a short story

He had been more like a moth on the curtains of time. Fluttering in oblivion and waiting, hoping, for a simple death. People would rather like him, if they could recollect him. But they would forget, he knew and was at peace with that.

Srinagar is a cold place now-a-days. He had spent the entire day at Dargah in his checked tweed coat, mildly dusty in the winter sun. It had been crowded, and he was okay with that too. He had crept silently along the walls and sat near the door. Close enough to escape without being seen, far enough to not obstruct those coming and going out. The crowd did not seem to move. There were too many people, all stationary, frozen in their places. The prayers were over, so most were just waiting for the next prayers.
Srinagar was a cold place. Dangerous. It’s no place for young birds, someone had told him. It was a sad place where life had ceased to exist, somehow. Look where are we now! He wondered what had happened. He looked at the pulpit of the sanctum for an answer. None came. The medieval city caught in a violent war. People didn’t want it anyway. And now from the corner of his row, he looked not just at uncertainty, but financial penury. The giant chandelier with its many glass pieces looked down on him, and he felt its stare on the small of his neck. It was still daylight, but the old man decided to leave. With a final bow and a silent prayer, he took his feeble self out.

The grim city with its hopeless pandering to the elite. The city was run by thieves, of this he was convinced. It was cold and his eyes were watery. Three men from Indian Army stood near the bus station, checking Ids of a few students from the university before smugly gesturing them into the waiting bus. The air was thick with the fumes of oil from the stalls where hawkers sat among piles of fritters and halwa. A few years ago, he would have taken some for his son. But not today. His son had gone to Delhi to do some ‘course’ he didn’t fully understand. So he walked straight to the bus yard and sat in one leaving for his home. The boys sheepishly tucked their ICards back into their wallets and climbed into the bus.

Srinagar was not a very welcome place, not beyond the Tourism Department posters. His son had never wanted to leave Kashmir one time, and now he wasn’t so sure. There was a sense of resentment and anger he couldn’t explain. He was annoyed with him, and in a way pleased. He couldn’t decide what to do. A young man from the University of Kashmir was munching on fritters. He found that distracting. At one time he had wanted his son to take a government job. But none were available. He was afraid that his son was destined to a very mediocre life, despite his education. He took out his hand and pressed it on his chest – a mediocre life, unless he chose never to return home. To this place. To his city. To him. Be a tourist in his own place. The Tourism Department posters made sense now – Srinagar was a tourist destination for her own people too. And then it dawned on him. In the grey light of afternoon, as the sun was peeking through the mist and a mush of clouds and the bus stopped at odd places, his face fell with the sudden realisation of failure. That he had lost his son, forever, and it was all because of him. He looked at the man who had been eating, he was looking away. May be he should call his son and ask about the future. Or maybe he should give it some time. Birds do come to roost. He slipped a little backward on the uncomfortable bus seat and put his hands in the pockets of his tweed coat. And waited.

 

 
~II~
 
At Rajiv Gandhi Chowk Metro Station the train regurgitated its load of people. There was a scramble at the escalators as the crowd slowly moved away. Rajiv Gandhi Chowk Metro Station was crowded. Too crowded for his comfort, and he noticed with some satisfaction that it was too crowded for everyone’s comfort except the hippie who sat comfortably near the steps lost in thought. Perhaps asleep. Perhaps drugged. The last thought scared him and he walked on.

In the post lunch session of the tech seminar the speaker spoke with a drone like voice, so sleep inducing that he found himself dosing off despite all the mint and the bottles of water. His friend had sent him a message to bunk the session and go out for a movie. Quietly he replied yes, and packed his bags and left.

New Delhi shone in the cool afternoon light of winter. People around him were decked in mufflers and sweaters, while Abid had folded the sleeves of his shirt. His neatly trimmed beard framing his high cheek bones, and his hair piled softly like ice cream on his head, he was very conscious of the stares he invited in the bazaars. He slung his bag with a careless ease, as the elevators emerged him out of the din of the train station.

The metro, on his first ride, had appeared like a charm. Abid had never seen anything quite like it. There was an artist sitting right next to him, and impolite as it had appeared, he had stared at his notebook throughout the journey. His feverishly moving fingers sketching wildly, to create a face so demure and coy that Abid silently gawked at the contrast. In the crowded train he saw a few who he guessed to be Kashmiris by their looks. He smiled at the thought that all of us have the same nose, but he had kept to himself. It was like a secret code.

The cinema was crowded in the second week of the film’s release. He got bored and distracted in the first thirty minutes but could not tell that to his friends. He liked the luxury of seeing movies on a giant screen, every colour brought alive by the darkness in the hall. The first time he had come to cinema had been two months ago. He thought he could get used to this. This was nice. The city was like a charm, there was so much to do that if he could just keep himself afloat, he was sure he could swim on forever. The lure was enormous. His friend, the one sitting next to him who had bought the expensive tickets as a treat, had just got a new job. Srinagar was but a heavy price to pay for it. He looked at his newly moneyed friend in the dark. The screen shone in his eyes.

He must evaluate the city for its many appeals and answers. There was a way with things here. The amount of energy he felt in his bones here had dispelled the despair at home. His friends from home had sent him a picture on Whatsapp of them having tea. He recognised the familiar restaurant at Khayam, the sweet milky tea, the unclean cups. Their long chats about girls, life and when someone got philosophical about politics, their hopes for the future, their desires and eventual death. In Srinagar, hope was a rare commodity. They had done so for six months after college. Two had appeared unsuccessfully for a job advertised by the J&K Bank. The others were still waiting for a government job. It had seemed possible at first, difficult next and as the exam approached, impossible. His father had tried to persuade him to try for government service. But he had refused.

He hadn’t really thought of his father since landing in Delhi. May be he should call him after this awful movie. Ask him about the future. Or maybe he should wait. Let it pass, let the dust settle. That was the thing about future, it would always show itself. He felt his phone in his pocket, and stared at the screen.

And waited.

50 Words

These are 50 words for the longest night.

The night is long. And has no company. The stars are obscured by the clouds. The clouds, themselves are invisible. The moon is trapped, shedding her light sadly somewhere invisible. The shadows float. Snowflakes tremble as they silently pile up.

The longest night shall end with a white morning. 
            
Hope.