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.



Best for the Last

“Will you dance with me? was the last thing that had crossed my mind. Or rather, should have been the last thing.

But Srinagar is never in a mood for dance. That summer had been sad and long. Painful for both of us. And love wasn’t love anymore. It had morphed into a memory where no one wanted to travel. The rain had disappeared and the Botanical gardens with it. There were no almond blossoms, nothing to separate the season from autumn.

In my mind, he was now staring at the Chinar. The red and brown leaves falling. The boughs a bit bent. Kashmir would soon lose this sheen. The world would turn a pallid grey. He would leave.

Isn’t that Kashmir’s tragedy? The best is always lost first.

There was a time when all we had wanted to was to look good. But that doesn’t last long. Time works wonders with looks and desires. I remember how gently his hair had fallen on his forehead. I remember that he had secretly loved his looks. I remember I had done too. Though, neither of us confessed. And that is the only thing I remember.

And now all I see is this young guy, with a wide-on-the-butt-narrow-on-the-legs pants sashay into the coffee shop, one of the many things that Kashmir now has. Nobody seems to notice him, except me. And me, for a reason the kid knows nothing about. All of a sudden, the autumn in Botanical gardens has paused. The brown leaves are still hanging there, and there is promise yet.

Outside the summer sun is setting. A group of tourists are excitedly admiring a jamawar shawl in a display window. A bus conductor runs after a bus to climb into it. Three girls from college finally notice the boy and dismiss him immediately. The crest of his carefully puffed hair falls. I laugh out and check myself immediately.
He stares out of the window. I follow his gaze but there is nothing in the clouds today. His faraway looks melts the autumn away from Botanical Gardens. From the gazebo it is still in Spring.
In my memory the question hangs unasked,”will you dance with me?”

Sound and Snow

It now is mine, this twilight all mine.
And I weep on the neck of trees,
-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

Thank God For Little Pleasures – XIII

“I sit beside the fire and think 
Of all that I have seen

Of meadow flowers and butterflies

In summers that have been

Of yellow leaves and gossamer

In autumns that there were

With morning mist and silver sun

And wind upon my hair

I sit beside the fire and think

Of how the world will be

When winter comes without a spring 

That I shall ever see

For still there are so many things

That I have never seen

In every wood in every spring

There is a different green

I sit beside the fire and think

Of people long ago

And people that will see a world

That I shall never know

But all the while I sit and think

Of times there were before

I listen for returning feet 

And voices at the door” 

― J.R.R. Tolkien

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A Curfew in Spring

Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, is under tight curfew. Tight does not qualify curfew. It qualifies Srinagar. Srinagar is tight under curfew. The city has stopped breathing. It is an enforced exercise that the Valley undergoes regularly for the sake of law and order. On the deserted streets of Srinagar, Indian Army men stand in army issued jackets nursing rifles under the fresh green leaves of the chinar. Occasionally a milk man cycles by. Sometimes, he is stopped and turned back. Sometimes he is allowed to pass, after an identity check.
When the government finally decides to lift the tightness, the people will emerge from their houses and search the markets for everything they have been denied all this while – medicines, milk, flour etc. All this before the second round of scourge begins and confines the people into their homes again.
In the frightening unsafe quiet of the curfew, spring has quietly arrived in the gardens of Kashmir. Of course, without the gardeners there is not much it could do. The snow has melted away and the grass is slowly turning green. The sky, however, is alternating between blue and red. An occasional shower of both hues keeps the memories alive. The memories of Kashmir!
The faint smell of new flowers hasn’t been noticed. People are still to get over the pungent smells of pepper canisters. Pepper gas canisters are a new favourite of the paramilitary. The recipe has been perfected to serve the right amounts of law and the correct potions of order in the inhalers. Apparently, over doses have some side effects. An old woman, who wasn’t used to it, died. (Alleged cause of death, of course.)  A middle aged man with a balding head opened the door to his house to look on the street. He saw three army men standing outside his house with batons and thick glass shields. They wore pads like cricketers and bullet proof vests. He shut the gate and sighed. A scared photo journalist captured the moment and drove away. This is the usual series in curfews if at all media men are allowed to wander on the streets.
At different knots in the city people gathered to shout angry slogans. At various places groups of young men collected to pelt stones at the armed paramilitary forces. They ran hither and thither, fired pepper cans, bullets and hid behind their armoured vehicles. Days like these are rare, when no one is killed in such clashes. However, by evening the news of casualties were unleashed upon us. A man injured here, a boy assaulted there. So many cars damaged, so many policemen injured. People now read these reports with the discomforting air of a terminally ill person reading his medical reports. It’s a relief that something faintly positive comes up. Dozens have been injured in the past week of curfew.
The mildly warm afternoon sun lulls the branches of the apricot trees where new buds are only yet germinating. The vines are turning green on caged bricks of the wall, wondering if it is the right time to break into flowers, or shall they wait for a more opportune time. The breeze treads cautiously over the dangerous terrain. Carrying too much perfume in such times could be unholy. The zephyr understands that. It loads itself with the laments of the weeping silent. Some those who cry out loud, others that obscure the pain.

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Thank God for Little Pleasures – I

Thank God for little pleasures. Little moments that take up a lot of space. A lot of time. Make up a lifetime. This was written on Friday, even though it may be published on a Saturday or a Sunday. Er, Monday?

A couple of days ago it was all about the match. Mainly. Thank God for little pleasures, Pakistan won. A green, white and yellow zardah for their victory. The red is for Bangladesh’s superb effort. So, by the way, others said. I am no judge of cricketing talent.

Thank God for little pleasures. The winds that blow the petals away. The pink in them. The whites in them. That we can see this, and tell each other of it. That we too will be blown away. The pink and white in us. Blossoms and bloom. I hope to go to badamvaer. I have never been there.

Thank God, for hopes do come true.

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The howling started suddenly. That was the evening of 19thMarch. The light bulbs zipped and were out. As is the norm. Electricity is the first martyr of any weather change in Kashmir.
As at that time it didn’t seem that serious, I hoped the electricity would be restored by 11am next morning. But morning was a long way off. It was the night that was exciting. And since I spent most of it awake, I can tell you something about it.
The wind hadn’t risen till late in the evening. After that it was all about the wind, and nothing else. In our beds we heard the leaves rustle violently in giant gusts of wind. The branches creak and crack. The unsettled birds chirping in displeasure. The gravel being rubbed against the window panes.
 The bucket being banged against the walls.

Next morning wore the look of a violated village. Leaves, twigs and tree branches lay strewn all over. A newspaper had flown in from somewhere. A polythene bag was hanging. A piece of cloth.

By afternoon, someone who had predicted that the wind will stop by 1pm of that day was being told that the wind kept no clocks. The people kept away from the streets. The wind hadn’t died down. People were afraid of falling objects, tree branches and roofs.
The electricity hadn’t still been restored. The wind was still howling. A tree collapsed in the neighbourhood. It must have made a creaking sound when it fell, but of course, no one heard. The wind wouldn’t let us. Nothing rose over the gale. People were already worrying about this newly born qahar.
By evening of next day (March 20th), the wind had reduced in its intensity. But there was no electricity, and with it getting darker no hope of it either. The wind reminded of the snow. Only that this time the Highway was open and we weren’t wrapped up in blankets.

In some other parts of Kashmir the wind blew down houses. It uprooted trees, and created a blank. Those who saw the structures being torn down will tell you that’s what winds do. The blow things out of order. Some people will now be mending their walls. Re-constructing their little forts, their seats of assumed power, to keep any future winds out. But that won’t happen. Nothing stops a pack of cards from crumbling, except, of course, Time. Even the powerful take some time to realise their power.

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