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__)

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Fa La La La La, La La La La

I have a song in my head and it goes like “Fa La La La La, La La La La.”

Christmas comes at a very opportune time. At the close of the year, when however terrible the year had been, everyone hopes for a better one next year. Now, I have been skeptical of New Year’s Eves and all the celebration, but one cannot help being delighted at the Christmas imagery.

Some very clever person elf must have guessed that an obese white man in a red coat from the land of snow will win hearts all over. Everything is festive about the pictures of Santa Claus. Snow falls. Fire burns. Shadows play. Gifts are wrapped. Tinsel shines. You cannot be sad or angry at that!

In Kashmir, I am sitting in the cold waiting for snow. It seems difficult today. The water sometimes freezes in the pipes now. The night temperatures fall so low that it is a miracle that air doesn’t freeze and become solid. One cannot venture out without longing for the indoors. The window panes frost and cloud. The outside becomes obscure. The one who is gone is lost from sight.

Yet there is no snow.

The schools are closed now for winter vacations, so the kids have nothing to do. Again. This year, the academic year functioned for 5 months. Everything else too. But worse things happened in this little valley of ours in the remaining months. People were killed with impunity, children were blinded with impunity. The curfew stretched on for four months, the strikes for even longer. Everyone blamed everybody else. The summer and autumn were gone in this frenzy. There is no salvation.

Sometimes I make up the argument in my head, “People are being killed on the streets and you are thinking about this?This could be anything – from nun chai to baking cakes – trivial things like the colour of pheran. But, I confess, I do think about these things. I have a folder on my computer full of cake recipes which I want to try. Sigh! I must be a horrible person.

In the days of the curfew, when you are too full of anger and grief to do anything, I sit almost paralyzed by the happenings of the world. The war came right to the street corner and brought home what it really means to live in a conflict zone. Yet again. The anger came simmering out and you couldn’t be non-partisan anymore. So there were protests and there was a huge push of propaganda. The political cycle was played again, complete with visits by the government of India’s officials. A few weeks into the crisis, op-eds started pouring in that India needs to learn from its mistakes in Kashmir. While India learns its lessons and acts upon them, is Kashmir supposed to wait and count her dead? Apparently, murder in Kashmir is no big news in India – indeed some have been openly baying the army for killing more Kashmiris. I am tired of these political shenanigans. Enough already!

2016 leaves us in a lot of tatters. And no one knows how the future will unfold. After 2010, such an uprising was unfathomable. And yet here we are! So many children have been buried without shrines this year. By next year, they will be faint public memories but stark figures in history. So many people have been blinded by pellet guns (which, by the way, are still not banned) and will not regain any vision. Sometime in March I had posted that there is no attack like an attack on personal freedom. That was when people in Paris said they were scared of doing regular things because of the uncertainty left by the Paris attacks of last year. For a brief period the upheaval had turned their world upside down. The same can hardly be said of Kashmir. Uncertainty is the way of our life here. We had just celebrated Eid when, as if by design, life suddenly stopped in Kashmir. Day after day, yet again, we were bombarded by the news of death and blinding of people. At the end of the year, I don’t mean to keen over the curfew or the city, and I do not want to sway and make grand predictions or write lessons for the future either. They never come true. If there is anything worth panegyrizing it is that when the government abandoned the people, the people didn’t abandon each other. From volunteer kitchens in the hospitals and donations to them, to the little acts like hitching rides or tuition for neighborhood children. We survived.

I feel everyone here is debating the Kashmir issue yet again. Internally, in small meaningful ways. This summer has cast a very long shadow. There have been no “inquiries” about the use of pellet guns and the deaths caused by them this year. No army men have been questioned. There is no justice. Just yesterday, a man narrated how his neighbour’s son was arrested and accused of burning bikes and rioting. The son is a student of Class 5.

Conflict erodes life. We have seen that this year. Kashmir is a test case, a lab for politics. Most experiments fail. And failures are fatal – for Kashmiris. We saw that again this year. If there is anything I am sure of right now, it is that the year is coming to an end in two days. Indoors, the woollen namda feels hard and familiar on the cold floor. And there is no snow yet. However, in my slightly frenzied mind I would continue to hope for small things, like small sparks to light big fires, like small steps to complete long journeys. When you are lost in the jungle, there is only one way to reach out, to keep walking the trail. I do not wish curfews or strikes or this conflict to sustain and claim more lives. I do however hope for a stronger voice. People have given their time, money and of course lives to see the end of this conflict. I hope their voices are heard. I hope prayers are answered. Like everyone else on this side of the divide, I want the summer carnivals of bloodshed presided over by some bureaucrats to end and the perpetrators punished. I hope the snow falls, fire burns, tinsel shines and continue to do so. I hope to live free from the trappings of guilt. To live free from the mercy of gun wielding foreigners. To live free. To that, my mind rises in a crescendo of “Fa La La La La, La La La La”.

The Delirious Lover

The bus stand was crowded when I reached there. I paused, with the sudden realisation that it had already begun like a cliché. Terrible, terrible thing. Bus stands are supposed to be crowded. That’s why they build them.

Any how I buy a ticket and get in. The passenger sitting next to me is not a Kashmiri.
I am not supposed to be telling stories, why is it going like one?
I didn’t begin a conversation with him. On this bus, on which I have made a hundred trips, I have never actually spoken to a stranger. Its the most natural thing. I have fallen asleep and dreamt of being lost, but never actually spoken to a stranger. And, then putting it all aside, I opened a book to read. But the book was a distraction. The person next to me look sideways at the book I was reading and looked away .
(“Snob”, I heard his thoughts go. “Who reads Orhan Pamuk in a bus?”)
He called his wife to tell that he would call again when he reached.

 

I put the book back in my bag. It was hard to follow things in Turkey when Kashmir was what was written all over. Somebody had died in Kashmir. How can you see an old death in a new light? Awful things were happening. Turkey was still far away. It could wait.
Snow, the usual beloved, had broken its truce. This March it appeared like a guest we were not expecting at all. Pleasantly surprised to welcome the visitor, we put our Spring on the side. But Snow was not pleased. It was, may I say like some storytellers do, a little angry at us. It came down in clumps and not very kindly. It broke a wall, a roof and a tree’s tall reach. But we still loved the guest. A force of habit, we are Kashmiris. we must love you, to let you in our house. Those who enter by force are not loved. But, Snow scorned at us and caused much pain. Like a beloved. We could only smile and carry on. Like delirious lovers.
Back on the bus, the sunlight had just started to stream in through the clouds. It made visible patterns as it struck the window panes and hit my face. It was the only good thing at the moment. But it was brief.  The bus rolled on with a sudden jerk and we left sunshine far behind.

In the cover of this snow, the winter seeks a quiet extension. It has stretched its withered hand as if to say, “hold me while I am still here.” The snow, a bit shy in March, shines from the trees in the stolen sunlight of a dim afternoon. On the bus, many miles away, it whispers in my ear, “If I die tonight, will you have spring in the morning?”.

 

A Curfew in Peace

9thFebruary.
 Last year Afzal Guru was hanged in Delhi on this day.  Early in the morning curfew was imposed, the news channels blocked and internet services cut down by the government to save people from the terrible onslaught of the news. Still, the government despite its good intentions and good humour could not save the people from hearing the news. People heard and, much to the agony of the government, reacted by getting angry and throwing stones. The defenceless security forces finding no other option to save the integrity of the curfew which they had imposed with so much devotion murdered a handful of people in protests and arrested a handful more.

After a few days of turbulence, just as the government had planned, peace returned to the Valley and slowly the curfew was withdrawn, the arrested people forgotten and the dead, well, were found to be really dead. They were put in a long list of martyrs, nameless for the most part, where they join others from 2010 and sundry massacres.

This year, on the anniversary of the hanging, the government displaying an unusual foresight blocked the internet and clamped curfew, thereby saving the last remaining of human race in Kashmir. The internet was ostensibly down for three days and curfew was having a little snow party. Even though not much snow is left. With Maqbool Bhat’s annual strike just round the corner on 11thof February, these two hangings could very well become Kashmir’s official (or unofficial) way to welcome spring. A sort of Koshur spring festival, only more grotesque and one utterly lacking in festivities.

Internet is usually the first casualty of anything that happens in Kashmir. Being one of the two things totally under the control of government (the other being curfew) it is frequently blocked or scrutinized or both simultaneously. The government looks out for events, or creates an event, and then extends a neck out of a little window and yells, “Stop the internet. Just do it!”
They hanged Afzal Guru. Block the internet.
It’s 15th August. Block the internet.
A mufti issued a fatwa against a local all girls band. Block the internet.
The minister has taken a blue pill. Block the internet.
(Okay, I made the last one up, but one can’t be sure enough – of blue pills and internet blockades).

When this government came to power, one of the first things it did was to ban the local news channels. Those days, it used to be fashionable to throw around words like “law and order”, “security’ and hence establish that the new government is not only bringing new censorships but also comes with a better vocabulary. Then the SMS were banned in 2008, but were started again a few months later. For two more years petty crimes and little “wars against the state” were waged through SMS and, finally, in 2010 the government rid the people of their menace. Since so many people were dying that year, it was no longer considered adequate or sensible to question the ban. People just accepted it and made do. The old tricks of changing “Service Centre” numbers that used to work in 2008 for sending texts during the ban no longer worked in 2010 and haven’t worked since then.
And now, we have the unique situation, where the government has blocked the internet, thus leaving people without Twitter – to which they were paying as much attention to know the reason for blockade as to Pakistan’s Ruiyat-e-Hilal Commitee for moon sighting on Eid. However, the justifications didn’t come. The internet being banned and all. Like all true democracies internet was blocked for three days only after a public announcement giving local media a chance to inform the people. And in a wonderful display of timing, it was snapped five minutes before the clock struck midnight just as ordered.
Despite all these measures, the people still complained. Some patients who had been let off were forced to spend another night in the hospital as if they were sick and the doctors complained of being treated like civilians when they were asked to show their identity cards repeatedly on the roads. In these perilous times, one cannot even have a curfew in peace without someone complaining to not being able to buy medicine or not being able to shift patients from one hospital to another or the University postponing its exams.

But one can’t get too feisty about a day of restrictions. It is, after all, a regular thing. The government opposing factions had given a call for strike. A mark of protest and anguish. The undeclared curfew changed it to a mark of oppression and police control. The protest it still remained, even under the iron gauntlet. 

Sound and Snow

It now is mine, this twilight all mine.
And I weep on the neck of trees,
Praying.
-Agha Shahid Ali
It was snowing last night. It must have been so when the year ended. He woke up at Fajr. Unexpectedly, lazily. But he was awake in bed with the sounds from the mosque streaming in and he felt that he couldn’t ignore them anymore.
Normally, in winter days he would find some work here and there. He had spent the summer doing odd jobs for the hoteliers around Lal Chowk. He had waited on tourists, pushed carts and in general waited for good times. In Maisuma, where he and his cohorts assembled beneath the awning of a hardware shop, the business is brisk before extended periods of lull and curfew. The army cordon is strong during curfews and even in peaceful times there is always an armoured truck. A few army men stand to guard it, and few more stand inside it to be guarded.
 
 
The daily wagers pay them no attention, except when they are ordered to buy tobacco for the army men. They carry on with their chatter and jostle for jobs, like friends and enemies. The work is slow to come in winter. The Secretariat is closed and Srinagar is calm and easy, entrapped in the centuries old issues of its own – of snow and cold and falling Chinar leaves. There is no work for anybody except those who work for a routine. Mostly, Srinagar waits, endlessly in winters. For snow and life.
But the snow was punctual this time, the daily wager noted with glee. He was now sitting up on his mattress, having found that he could no longer sleep. A group of men was reciting a Persian couplet in the mosque. He didn’t understand it, but mouthed the words anyway. His son would be among them – he felt proud and happy at that. The kangri from last night had gone cold. Few things are as disappointing as a cold kangri. He turned the coals and ash over, but it was dead – dead like a gun.
In early spring, when the city was under curfew after the death of a few young men following the hanging of Afzal Guru, he had roamed outside his house. He had tried to reach Lal Chowk, mainly out of boredom and habit but had been turned back. The streets had been empty, save the stray dogs and army men, both of which had chased him away in packs. An army men had pointed a gun at him from an armoured vehicle, and he had raised his hands out of sheer practice. Or was that in Ramazan, somewhere in August? There was a curfew then, wasn’t it? His memory failed him. He couldn’t figure if the year had been good or not, under curfew or not? Were there killings, did people die? Something had happened in Ramban or Kishtwar. The shopkeepers in Maisuma had been speaking of it, all summer long.
***
Arif, the pigeon keeper, lived in downtown of Srinagar. Months ago he had lost two of his best flier pigeons. He’d thought they were stolen first, but since he never saw them again, he contended they had died. For weeks after their disappearance he had waited patiently for their return, even contacted the local SHO, who had politely told that more important things disappear in Srinagar than two unlucky pigeons.  
The last time he thought he had seen the pigeons was when he was out in the street with a few friends protesting. A foreign musician had come to Kashmir, and army men had killed four people in Shopian. They had formed a small knot to hurl stones and shout slogans, but the police men soon chased them away. It was evening and a few clouds were floating on the horizon. Arif saw, though he never agreed to it later, his two lost pigeons perching on the filigree of his neighbour’s roof. He looked at them for a good long minute before losing them in confusion created by chasing army men and protestors.
He never saw them again.
***
The daily wager peeped out of the window. A small, terrified rat-like glance. There was no electricity, but the sound of the congregation reached his room. It filled it with a commotion that was mobile, almost tangible, and he wondered how he had never heard it before. How it never woke him up before today!
The water was cold and cut like a blade. If God wanted prayers, why wasn’t the water hot? Warm, at least! But God didn’t want prayers. He had no need for them. That’s perhaps why he kept beds so warm and ready. The congregation was getting over. He dipped his hands in a bucket full of icy water. The cold spread to his spine. It chilled his bones and cleared his eyes.
The daily wager hadn’t forgotten how to pray. It had been long since he had actually woken up for Fajr prayers. His duty bound self first felt guilty and shy, like a beloved kid who had misbehaved. And then terrified, like a convict who was caught red-handed. He gathered courage and prayed for a better day. Not the year which lied ahead. Not the year which went past. His future lay far away, in the blooming youth of his son. In the city that his son would inherit. He would have nothing to do with it. His fear gave way to gloom when he realised that – that he controlled nothing. All that he had gathered was a pile of snow, which would melt with the first thaw of spring. It surprised him – this whole morning which had begun way too early than usual. The whole parade of things. The sounds. The water. The snow. The snow fell in soft puffy flakes. Gently, from far above. It gathered slowly – flake by flake on the ground which absorbs them at first and then gives in, yielding itself to the vast white veil of snow.
He sat quietly on the prayer rug listening to the sound of the mosque, of birds softly chirping, of pigeons cooing in the morning. Soon it would be quiet. The snow would shield the sounds too, and send across only light, which would reflect off its surface. White. The thought made him happy. That something so white and pure could come to the city so impure from far above! And with no warning, no telling, no fuss.
Gracefully, like a flock of swans. Like hope in his sullen heart. Like a pair of lost white pigeons.

Related: Feathers and Dust

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.

Thank God for Little Pleasures – XIV

For the time spent walking hand-in-hand on snowy paths along the Dal. For sitting alone for hours, staring at the blank whiteness. White flakes which pile softly on the low wall and the high tree tops, and obscure the world around.

A warm fragrance rises from the smoke of barbecue. A shivering youth fans the red embers on the gridiron. The grey smoke vanishes in the grey sky.

Give yourself some company while the snow lasts.
And some barbecue. 
(Photo Courtesy: Sair Mir)