Old Pictures

Old picsI look at old photographs and wonder where did life go? My thoughts are not, who these people are or were – I am not curious about their lives as present in the pictures, but more about the future that befell them. Who did they become? What happened to them? I cannot put a picture down without feeling a little sad that I will never know what happened to the characters.

Recently someone posted a picture on Twitter of four Kashmiri women laughing. That was the caption and very much the contents of the image – it showed four young women in beautiful ornate pherans, with daejj on their heads, sitting cross legged in front of a dark background, laughing. Like friends laugh among themselves – merrily and with abandon. As if one of them had said something absolutely ridiculous about the photographer and others had heard it. There wasn’t a frown in sight.

I wonder what became of the women after the photograph? It wasn’t a really famous photograph; I have no idea who the photographer is or who the nameless women are. But I know the photograph was taken in 1986 or thereabout. Did the women live through the 90s? did they have the same experiences as the rest of us? Or did they become someone really important and famous? Or were their lives hidden in the mires of insignificant details of family connections.

Or was this one photograph, now circulating the internet, a special memory. Are they still friends? Do they remember the joke? The immortal laughter? Did they ever walk down the Goni Khan Market and looked enviously at the displays? Or did the store away money to buy novels at the Hind Book store?

Cartier Bresson Henri’s iconic picture of Kashmiri women praying at dawn holds the same secrets. All we know is that they were Kashmiri women who probably climbed a hill (Hari Parbat) for prayers – fajr prayers. What did they pray for? One woman holds out her hands in prayer towards the skies – on that slightly clouded morning in Srinagar in 1948, what did the lady ask for? Was her wish granted?

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I look at these old pictures cannot but wonder what happened in the life of these people after that moment. Do they realize how famous their stances have become?

It becomes even darker if you see the pictures from old newspapers of the 1990s. The people, mourning, crying, running or lost. They are nearly indistinguishable from one another and yet hold unique secrets. I wonder if they are alive, if they survived the nineties, because so many didn’t. They were here, where did they go?

These pictures from a different time are a privileged entry into a world which no longer exists. Kashmir and the people, changed by war and fear have very different stories to tell across the years. The women caught laughing in 1986 could have never imagined how the times would change just within a couple of years and nothing would be the same again. I hope they remained friends, however. Perhaps its my longing to know the life of the city before my time, how the people lived before history got written.

The uncertain charm of past moments and the locked mysteries of the climax of the characters’ stories makes me wonder if someone long after see me in an old picture and think what became of me?  When these books are balanced, someone might come across a picture fallen off the table and weave a tale around it. Someone’s private life would be scrutinized by a stranger’s eyes. What would I, who secreted so many sections of my life to nameless diary, say to that?

 

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The Age of Memories

How long will this memory last?

I woke up suddenly, feThe Age of Memoriesaring I was late. But there was still an hour to go. Too much time.

The morning was so pleasant; it could have been home. I walked to one of small round benches in the garden and watched two bright blue birds flutter across the trees. A frog hopped away and something moved in the bushes.

 

Where do we go from here?

I wrote my address down on a piece of paper. In cursive, as I had been taught in primary school. As I had done since childhood. The only one I had ever known. It had my name in it. It was my way to deal with loss, write it down.

Zoon Begum, the Lady of the Moon, the cat. She had just came by one day asking for food and never left. She sat on the chairs all day waiting for me to come by and rush to rub its nose on my shoes. Zoon loved that. She spent the whole winter, braving the snow, sitting under the rags waiting for warm bowls of milk and biscuits. Come spring, Zoon Begum left.

Who shall take care of you, Zooni?

 

And now I followed the memory back. To Zoon, to the morning smells of dew, to home. To an old wooden chess board that belonged to my grandmother. Some things leave behind very private memories. These sixty-four small squares held sixty-four small blanks of memories which I could not explain to anyone. It smelled of ancient wood and by constant use, it carried the aroma of my grandmother’s memory. Of all things, I needed to salvage this.

Was it too late now?

Srinagar was having a hot, unduly sunny afternoon where the windows were framed white in the heat. For a moment, it was hard to recognize. But if I squinted my eyes, I could see myself in it. A bit altered, of course. I folded the chess board and rubbed my hands. In my mind a small vial of bottled fragrance corked itself shut.

How long will this memory last?

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)

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__)

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”.

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.

Five

Here we are already!

Words after words, cups after cups, another year ends and Rich Autumns is now five years old.

Should we celebrate?

This year was definitely not the happiest in Kashmir. More than 100 days spent under curfew and lockdown consecutively. Countless number of people dead and blinded. We are now all witnesses, this blog included, to what went down in a small valley that tries to keep to its own.

But after so much scarring and loss, Srinagar is still a beautiful city where people still choose to live in hope of a better tomorrow.

Resilience: to stand in the path of lightening
Resilience: to walk when darkness falls at noon
Resilience: to grind yourself fine in the turning mill
Resilience will come to you.

Vakh 90 – Lalla Ded
(from I, Lalla by Ranjit Hoskote)

Thank you, readers, for following along. These are just processions of words and cups of nunchai.

Here is a list of posts from the last year. If you have read more than five of these, I think we can be friends.