Like Snow in Summers


On July 8, 2016 Indian Army killed Burhan Wani, a militant commander of a group demanding freedom of Kashmir from India. The aftermath has been a mass uprising in Kashmir. People have been protesting and the government declared curfew. Till 15th August, India’s Independence Day, there had been no let up in the curfew and 38 people had died.

When his phone didn’t connect after repeated attempts, he knew the phones had been blocked. He could go on for days without talking to his parents, but at times like this it seemed urgent. Srinagar was so far away – and everything around him was so removed from home. It was like thinking about spring in autumn, or remembering snow in summers.

“Hello. Greetings”
“Greetings, son” said a sombre voice at the other end. His father sounded distant and slower. 
That was the last conversation he had with his father four days ago. 

***

He was vaguely aware of the music before he was awakened by it. Nabeel woke up early. Too early for a holiday. And with great annoyance. He waited in the bed, eyes still closed. Wishing sleep would come again. Stretching his toes. Trying to think of something other than the song blaring from the loudspeaker. A particularly sappy one – one he had never liked.

India’s Independence Day announced itself on a hundred unread Whatsapp messages from his office group. He ignored. Trying to go back to sleep. Trying hard not curse. He couldn’t.

There seemed to be no escape for him. Shielding his eyes against the sun, he looked outside the window to see who was playing these songs, but the sound seemed to be coming from nowhere in particular. All he could see was the abandoned half-constructed building next to his. Then Lata Mangeshkar sang about martyrs.

Yes, what about them? He wanted to yell at whosoever was playing these songs.

He gave up. He rubbed his eyes and looked around. He decided to make tea, but that would mean going downstairs to the dingy little grocery store to buy milk. That would mean meeting people. That may also mean attending the flag hoisting.

He had overheard some kids talk about the flag hoisting in the ‘society’ – one of the things people in Delhi did. He didn’t know where they would do it – but by instinct, and habit, he wanted no part of it. Outside a group of women was chatting loudly over the music – he could hear them through the door. He turned away – tea could wait.

He had never held a flag in his hand.

Four days ago, his father had called to tell him to stay inside his room and not to go outside on 15th August.

It was still 10 o’ clock. The music was still playing.

He checked his Facebook. More curfews in Kashmir, more people dead in police action, more protests. There were no notifications, as expected. He hadn’t posted anything in weeks. The last post was when 12 boys had died. Now, social media informed him, it was more than 30. Three of them from his neighbourhood. He wasn’t sure what they were doing, but he one knew of them – the one who sneaked out at night with him to smoke in the darkness.

He took a bottle of water and rinsed his mouth.

He had returned to Delhi on 10 July having spending his Eid holidays at home in early July. Srinagar was under curfew then. He had left his home before dawn, in the darkness, to reach the airport. All along the way army men patrolled empty roads and stray dogs barked at the passing car. No movement was allowed during daytime. It was almost a month since his return; Srinagar was still under curfew. He knew his father hadn’t been to work in a month. He wondered if he was still buying the medicines. His diabetes medicine was expensive, and often he would skip a pill in between intentionally. Was he taking it regularly? Now that it hit him, there was no way to know.

Internet was not working. Phones were not working either.

So he waited and felt the whirring of the fan overhead. He pulled his legs up and tried to concentrate on the soft snoring of his roommates rather than the songs from outside. Noida was a swarm of high and low rise buildings perennially covered in dust from some construction. This city was still being built. It was always under construction. Every morning an army of workers would converge to the skeletal structures and disperse. In the evening they would emerge again. Nabeel lived with three other boys in one newly let out apartment building, with no furnishing and erratic water supply. The other three were not from Kashmir, and Nabeel had met them when over time moving from place to place, job to job he had finally landed there. Their agreement to stay together had somehow worked thus far – the fair Kashmiri who didn’t speak much – even though they worked at different places and had no mutual friends anymore.

What about the martyrs? They were kids, weren’t they? The next day’s newspapers would carry the death toll at 38 people, most of them of Nabeel’s age and younger. Twenty five years. Killed by an army operating within its laws. The singer extolled him to recall and weep over the deaths. Yes, he would. His friend had multiple injuries from the pellet gun which was the government’s weapon of choice against the protesters. It sprays small balls of lead at no particular target. He had been shot from a fatally close range.

Did they find any cigarettes on him then? Cheap Four Square brand. Did his mother come to know about his smoking after his death? There was no way to know the answer to life’s unending little mysteries. How did he feel now? What did he see before dying? What did he say? Was there anyone around him?

He must save his memory. He must not forget him.

This year had been particularly bad. He had read with a tremble in his spine how some CRPF guy had need put needles in the eyes of a five year old. Five, he could not get over the ages of these people. They were either too young or about his age. Was that an age to die? What if he was in Kashmir? Would he be dead too? Had he cheated death by coming here?

He looked away from his thoughts. There was a cockroach in the sink trying to climb its wall. The women were still outside the door. Bracing himself he went out in his t-shirt and shorts. The women saw him and smiled at him. He looked down and hurried away. They continued talking. The grocer’s was at the ground floor. There was a small crowd of children asking for things and women in long dresses chatting while waiting. He put the change on the glass-top and asked for a packet of milk. It appeared; he snatched it and tore away to his apartment.

The boys had arranged for a cook to come and cook meals for them. But today being Independence Day, he had taken the day off. He was planning to his wife and kids to India Gate. That was two days off in a row; yesterday had been Sunday. That meant there was nothing to eat in the apartment. In the afternoon, the other boys had already made plans.
“Going out?” his flatmate Mohit asked him.
“Not really. Are you?”
“Yes. See you later.” And with a strong whiff of deodorant Mohit was gone.

Later in the evening and not knowing what to do Nabeel pushed himself to go to the mall to get some coffee and to get away from his apartment. He realised that it was a mistake as soon as he reached. It was loud and noisy like a child’s birthday party except that the guests paid for everything and there were no gifts. At each entrance of the mall, there was a huge and a gaudy decoration of paper flames in the three colours of the Indian flag: orange, white and green. The place was decked with buntings in the three colours. His flatmates had brought a bunch of three balloons last night – green, white and orange. Nabeel had accidently burst the orange one, and it hung, spent and useless with the thread. The food court was on the top of the mall and as he made his way through the escalators, the dazzling lights of shops caught his eyes. There were mannequins dressed in green, white and orange, display screens which blasted the three colours and offered special discounts, a counter was even selling ice cream in the three colours. People were wearing lapel pins in the shape of the Indian flag and some had small streaks of the colours in their hair. A woman outside the mall had offered him a lapel pin too, and was surprised when he had refused.

He ordered his coffee at the counter. There were three people in front of him with large and elaborate orders. Clearly they had come with a group. The boys were celebrating Independence Day by wearing a kurta over jeans.

“One latte, please.”

He tendered the exact change and waited for his order.

There were not many tables vacant, but he found one at the back. In a distant corner, away from the centre of the floor where families were having a picnic of South Indian food and young couples were sipping cold coffee or eating sundaes with plastic spoons. He watched as he sipped the coffee. The people of the free world were enjoying their history.

Now, he hadn’t spoken to his mother in three days as the government had blocked the phones in Kashmir. He had heard about Burhan Wani, the killed militant, before he died. He thought Burhan was exceedingly good looking, and that was the first thing Nabeel mourned when he heard about his death. Some policeman had clicked a ghastly picture of his fair face after death. And then the curfews had come. He had secretly counted the number of people killed, but then lost count at about twenty two.

He felt his eyelids droop. He sipped coffee.

“Do you have money? Should I send some?” he had wanted to ask his father but the question choked his voice. His father would have never accepted it.

He knew his father was relieved that Nabeel was in Delhi, away from Kashmir and Nabeel resented that. His office was a small networking company and Nabeel was still a novice at the job. He had joined it after much prodding by a friend who worked there for sometime before moving to Dubai. His parents hoped Nabeel would do the same. Nabeel wanted to be back in Kashmir; with his friends at Khayam Street dining on barbecue meat as they used to every month with their savings. Now his friends had some meager jobs collecting data for a government agency and Nabeel was in Delhi.

The next day when he went to office the people were still talking about the long weekend – the parties and the picnics. He had spent the long weekend curled up in a corner reading Ernest Hemmingway and the angry social media messages. He had not had any dinner for two days and skipped lunches for tea. The girl in the next cubicle was eating something out of a box. Nabeel looked over and she smiled at him, ashamed to have been caught. Prachi was an affable young girl who loved eating more than anything else.

Then she rose above the cubicle wall, “How was your weekend?”

“Miserable. I have not eaten in two days” Nabeel confided in her. He realised he hadn’t also spoken to anyone in two days, but that he didn’t tell Prachi.

“Really? Here,” she offered him the box.

“No, thanks. I just had breakfast outside. How was your weekend?”

“Awesome.” And then without warning or invitation she launched into the details of her weekend trip to the cinema, the movie she saw, her saunters in the new giant mall, and how they had wished to go to Chandigarh for some reason but weren’t able to.

“Hmm.”

“How are things in Kashmir? I heard on the news there is some trouble.”

“Not really good. A lot of people have died.”

“Oh, shit!”

***

“Did you go out today? Were the markets open?” he asked his father on the phone.
“No, I didn’t. I don’t know.” 
His father had not stepped out of his house even once in the last month. There had been no let up in the curfew since. 
There was silence on the line as both considered what to speak next.

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We Will Have No Regrets

No. We will have no regrets.

The stranger had reappeared in a familiar city.

 

He had once told me that happiness is a task. An uphill climb. Like hoping against hope. Its an achievement often, and not always desirable. That sadist hero! He had let his hair flop on his forehead and swept it away, and told me that misery can be a uniting factor.

People drift apart when they are happy. Everyone is scared to share happiness with others who are miserable. And they are miserable, you can be sure of that.

I dont agree, you know. We can be happy together. I mean people.

Are they anymore? I mean people.

Why explain. Why delay. Don’t go away. Simply call it a day.

I hadn’t said anything in protest. But misery isn’t the objective. Neither is despair. We live in Kashmir, or somewhere where Kashmir is always present. We live in doubt.

Now both are quiet, and he is to leave. He always does.

We are scared of familiarity in Kashmir. The warmth is all for strangers. I leave it at that.

As you leave I can say. Love was King. But for only a day.

In doubt I reminisce about this idea. Is despair the center of our life now or is doubt? It is the center of our relation, of course. That’s how relations with strangers are, full of doubt. Is the blankness of the future, burnishing us now. Our minds and hearts?

Its a warm, regrettably sunny February. His hair is glinting auburn, like autumn air. Its a colourful day, draining the winters and almost spring. He looks at me and then looks away.

Pleading moments we knew. I will set them apart. Every word, every sigh. Will be burned in my heart.


(Song lyrics: Shirley Bassey “We will have no regrets“)

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.

"Shall We?" – 2

At the end of the trip was Srinagar.
At the beginning of it was Srinagar, too. Like return of Spring in March. A bit unsure, but very much there.
The stranger looked back at the aeroplane that had brought him here. How unromantic is air travel! What story of love if it doesn’t travel over rocky mountains and dangerous cliffs. What love if it is not hurled over a precipice!
The stranger passed through the waiting queue of people at the baggage carousel. People were already piling their trolleys when he reached and waited patiently for his suitcase. There are only two baggage claim belts at Srinagar airport. The other one was empty. The arrival terminal is bereft of any glowing billboards and other fan fare. Just a Foreigners Registration Desk and a few policeman.
A policeman came forward and asked him if he was a foreigner. The stranger said no.
Confused the policeman asked, “What is your country?”. “Kashmir”, he said.
And smiled to himself.
Thats how I saw him coming and that’s how he shall appear in my eyes on countless occasions. Smiling to himself, his red lips curled in an unabashed grin. Behind his dark glasses his eyes adjusting to the sunlight outside. 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.
Love is a pointless emotion anyway, he had said before he had left. And now I couldn’t help a sinful wave turn inside me as he made his way through the throng of waiting placards. His fair face and red shirt standing out.

Of course we had coffee. Words and laughter flowed. A lot was said and heard. Autumn was not melancholy after all. I dont think it will ever be. I had prayed for him, and it was answered. Under the falling leaves of the chinar it was all blossoms.

The frail question still hung, “Will you dance with me?

..to be continued…

Porcelain

The waiters had appeared, setting glasses upside down in preparation of early evening diners. But mainly the restaurant was empty. Tea. A cup of tea is a good idea at this hour. The tea arrived brimming hot in white ceramic. the waiter laid the cup slowly, and delicately like an artist, took a step backward to examine its position at the table. Like still life, in which the stranger was just an object. An object in someone else’s painting.
As if acknowledging this idea, the waiter nodded at the stranger and smiling went away.

A few tables away a young guy with blue spectacles sat looking prettily at his date. A light jazz played in the restaurant. “Strangers in the night” the stranger could hear in his mind. It was hot day, by Srinagar standards. And the air was dusty. The many ornamental plants and the air conditioning did nothing to improve the air. Across the lawn trimmed to perfection, beyond the edge, traffic rumbled by. Its many sounds barely audible over the music in the café. A small marquee had been set up inside the hotel to give it a Middle Eastern feel. The curtain around the marquee looked untidy and unwashed.

The stranger had wandered into this place looking for company. He realized that he stayed there for too long. He looked at his tea cup. Empty again. It was Eid and he had nowhere to go.

 
 
The waiters had appeared, setting glasses upside down in preparation of early evening diners. But mainly the restaurant was empty. Tea. A cup of tea is a good idea at this hour. The tea arrived brimming hot in white ceramic. the waiter laid the cup slowly, and delicately like an artist, took a step backward to examine its position at the table. Like still life, in which the stranger was just an object. An object in someone else’s painting.
As if acknowledging this idea, the waiter nodded at the stranger and smiling went away.

A few tables away a young guy with blue spectacles sat looking prettily at his date. A light jazz played in the restaurant. “Strangers in the night” the stranger could hear in his mind. It was hot day, by Srinagar standards. And the air was dusty. The many ornamental plants and the air conditioning did nothing to improve the air. Across the lawn trimmed to perfection, beyond the edge, traffic rumbled by. Its many sounds barely audible over the music in the café. A small marquee had been set up inside the hotel to give it a Middle Eastern feel. The curtain around the marquee looked untidy and unwashed.

The stranger had wandered into this place looking for company. He realized that he stayed there for too long. He looked at his tea cup. Empty again. It was Eid and he had nowhere to go.

After the Eid prayers, a random person stepped forward from the throng of strangers at the congregation and hugged him. The stranger hugged him back. It was Eid after all. But the man was gone before the stranger could see his face. He was lost in a throng of onlookers and bored people waiting to get out of the mosque. He had thin shoulders and deep black eyes. He disappeared in the crowd.

There was a moment of happiness and the plain joy of it bounded onto him. This would be over soon, he said to himself. There is a fire on the mountains. A long road leads up the hill. If you make it through, the air is fragrant with burnt roses. The singed petals pave the way up.

The stranger smiled at the empty cups. The top of the mountain is an unknown place. It may have roses, luscious and covered in dew drops. Or nettles, grown over the years.

The music in the café changed, to a deep soulful violin. The boy across the table was still smiling at his date. The stranger thought of the man who had hugged him. In a city of unknown people, someone had tried to make a connection. But then he had disappeared. May be for all the warmth of his heart, he had found the stranger cold, and withdrawn. The stranger was still thankful for that. In the weepy sky that overcast the city that day, he wrapped his hand round the cup of tea. It had gone cold. Now it was just porcelain.

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?”

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