I was definitely caught on the wrong foot as I thought there would be few passengers on the flight. But the flight was jam packed. The Media coverage for the last couple of months might have led me to this unfounded notion, I reasoned.
November 2016. I had taken an early morning flight to Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir, India from New Delhi. I was rushing because Irtiqa’s ‘nikah’ (wedding) engagement would take place within a couple of days. I must be present. Irtiqa is my sister. She lives in Srinagar and this is my first visit to that place.
My visit remained surreptitious to many. Only after fixing the entire itinerary, had I informed about it to selective friends and relatives in Kolkata. Most of them thought I have turned hopelessly crazy. Their thought was not quite groundless as Kashmir was boiling since the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander, Burhan Wani on 8 th July. The killing triggered off the cumulative anger of the Kashmiris like never before. It was an uprising of some sort where nothing but ‘azaadi’ (freedom) was the demand.
Without paying much attention to their overwhelming fear and apprehension, I set off for Srinagar tackling the unprecedented situation owing to the demonetization initiated by the Central government of India.
As the plane taxied on the runway, the pilot announced over the microphone, “its 12 degree Celsius outside. The estimated time to the destination is one hour and 30 minutes.” I had settled down on a window seat, near the wings. A Kashmiri girl with sleepy eyes was sitting beside me. Earlier, I had reached the airport at the wee hour of the morning. The airport was agog with activities. Most of the passengers were waiting in the airport with their eyes groggy. Some were fast asleep, some of them busy with phone at those hours, catching on the social network, some strolling aimlessly to pass away the time. An air hostess, too, was waiting in the lounge. She was continuously talking over her phone. Meanwhile, two guys caught my attention. Both of them young, one was much younger-maybe in his early 20s. Clad in saffron robes, with bald heads and oye! Khorom in their feet, these two monks can be easily distinguishable in a crowd. Are these wooden sandals making a comeback? Who knows? No sooner, they got seated across from me, one of them pulled out a MacBook from his jhola bag. The bag, too, was of saffron color. The other one had an iPad. Both of them seemed to be quite geeky. They soon became engrossed with their business for the next 15 minutes or so. Are they software junkies turned monks? When I was ruminating over their identities, all of a sudden, they closed their machines and rushed out of the airport in a jiffy. Their cometical appearance and disappearance has been etched in my memory now.
As the plane took off the girl sitting beside me fell asleep. I looked out of the window. The plane was like swimming, swerving continuously and pushing itself higher and higher to come out of the pool of clouds. After a while, I too dozed off.
All of a sudden my eyes opened up and I looked out of the window and saw a cerulean sky without a hint of clouds. I looked down and waves of mountains greeted me. We were definitely over Kashmir.
The plane landed at dot 9 in the morning. Outside, it was foggy and the visibility almost nil. The pilot announced-“the temperature of Srinagar is 2 degree C.” The announcement, literally, send a shiver down my spine. I was wearing a full sleeve thin pullover. On my backpack, I did have a half sleeve sweater. I pulled it out from the bag. But will it save me from the biting cold?
I had no checked-in luggage. So I was out of the airport immediately and instantly the cold lashed me mercilessly. I called Irtiqa and spoke with clattered teeth -
“I have landed. Where is the car?”
“Bhai, Khalid is on the way. Please wait,” she answered.
Khalid is the younger brother.
He too called me within a minute.
“Bhai, I will be right there. Reaching you by five minutes. There is a security check-up going on just at the entrance of the airport,” he explained.
I waited impatiently, shivering. Five minutes rolled into twenty minutes. No sign of Khalid. A man walked towards me. He must have been observing my discomfiture.
“Where are you from?”
I told him. He smiled.
“This is only the beginning of winter. From December, it will snow,” he said nonchalantly.
The waiting passengers have all dispersed by now save a young lady. She too was waiting, loitering up and down the parking area, looking quite restive. She came near me and in a distressed tone said-
“Can I make a call from your phone, please?”
“Yes, of course,” I replied and handover the phone.
She spoke to someone in Kashmiri in a palpably anxious voice. She returned the phone and thanked me. I smiled back. Within couple of minutes, her car arrived. She rushed towards it with her luggage. Before entering inside the car, she glanced at me and threw a dazzling smile. I nodded.
But there was no trace of my car. I looked up. The greyness of the sky was getting denser. The sun was invisible and it was numbingly cold. I was standing beneath a leafless poplar tree, alone, waiting.
A few moments later, a speeding car came and screeched its brake in front of me. Khalid came down smilingly and hugged me. He is a tall and handsome fellow. He put my luggage in the hatchback. Within few seconds, I was inside the car. His friend, Rayees, was on the wheel. The heater was on and the warmth considerably comforted me within few minutes.
We were leaving the airport. Khalid pointed my direction to the other side of the road-long queue of cars, waiting for the security check. These hassles are common, happen every day in Srinagar, he told me.
The car speeded up. My eyes, meanwhile, were seeking for something else- examining the walls intently. The walls were moving back fast, receding as if into oblivion. But I didn’t have to wait too long. I caught the sight of it- the writing on the wall. Graffiti were erased, clumsily whitewashed, but nonetheless, visible. “Go back India”. Another one much more malicious- “Indian dogs get out”. The men on khaki and olive green were in vigil, standing in every nook and corners of the roads- occasionally warming themselves sitting beside a wooden fire, stoking dying embers.
The car reached Shalteng Chowk. Shalteng is on the outskirts of Srinagar. It’s a residential colony, not far from the airport. The car turned towards Bandipora Road. After a couple of minutes it took a right turn and reached my destination, Ghalib Abad Lane. The car stopped beside a gate of a three- storey building. A sprawling compound with a kitchen garden came in sight. Getting off the car, I stopped for a while. My mind was filling with an unprecedented sense of joy- within a few seconds or so, I would be meeting Irtiqa, her family. My heart began to beat faster. Our long wait to meet each other was going to end and I was about to enter inside the courtyard of Kashmir.
Irtiqa, with a resplendent smile on her face, was waiting outside the main door. She was wearing a pheran and a woolen cap. Extending her hands towards me she took me straight to the kitchen room. In the carpeted floor of the kitchen, her father Fayez Sahib was sitting with his back resting on the wooden wall. His body was covered with a wooly quilt. Seeing me, he got up and embraced me warmly with a broad smile. But I was shivering. Sensing it, he covered my body with the quilt and made me sit beside him. He gave me a kangri to warm me up. Kangri is a traditional firepot which keeps people warm during the severe winter in Jammu & Kashmir. The earthenware is filled with glowing embers which remain encased in handmade wicker baskets. The earthenware is decorated with colorful threads, mirror-work and sequins. It is a portable and moving heater which the Kashmiris keep inside their pheran, a long woolen cloak reaching down to the knees.
There were several boys and girls-all young- in the room. They were all family friends. But among them was Irtiza, the youngest sister of Irtiqa- our pretty Gudia Rani.
Last minute furnishing was going on all over the house. New carpets were being laid out on the wooden stairs. Irtiqa’s mother was not home. She had gone out for shopping. She had accepted me as her son. But I haven’t met Mamma yet. I went up to Khalid’s room in the second floor. I would be staying in that room.
It was about 11 in the morning. I looked outside the window. The veil of mist was getting lighter as the dim ray of sunlight pierced through it. The atmosphere seemed so strange. A surreal dream, meanwhile, engulfed me. Bengal is far away from Kashmir. But a Bengali has entered into a Kashmiri household- mutual love, affection, respect have strongly bonded us together. This is an incredible experience.
I was also given a pheran. Wearing that outfit, I came downstairs again. Mamma had returned. Seeing me, she came and hugged me. Her warm reception made me feel at ease. Piping hot nun chai (salt tea) was served to further warm me up. This is quintessentially Kashmiri style of preparing tea. Instead of sugar, wee bit of salt is added while preparing it. The mixture of tea and milk gives it a light pink hue. There were assortments of local cookies for me too. I picked up one, which was kulcha. Kashmiris make different types of homemade cookies and they are really delicious. Kulcha is crispy. After breaking it into small pieces, they are dipped in the cup. The tea-soaked kulcha is eaten with relish. There was tsot, another kind of bread. It is hard and much bigger than kulcha but crispy nonetheless. There are also lavasa, girda on the platter . These cookies are available in the local grocery shop. Later on, I visited the shop- small, run of the mill establishment- just down the main road. Each tsot costs Rs. 5 (.08 cents roughly). Much better than our usual loaf of bread, I felt.
I arrived on Irtiqa’s mehendi day. Mehendi is a form of body art which is created in decorative designs using a paste from the powdered dry leaves of the henna plant. This is a very popular form of body decoration in the Indian subcontinent. When the paste dries up after sometime, it is removed and the color comes out, which, initially, is pale orange but gradually, it becomes darker through oxidation.
There was a strange sound coming from one of the rooms as if someone was beating a drum accompanied with chorus, with a lilting tune. These are folk music, sung on the occasion of wedding- all in Kashmiri language. The sound emanated from a queer looking instrument called tumbaknari. It holds a unique distinction in Kashmir and is being used for centuries. The harmonious rhythm of it makes the whole atmosphere euphoric and enthralling. Tumbaknari had been used from ancient times in places like Iran and vast regions of Central Asia. The instrument has come down from these places to Kashmir for the simple reason that visitors have been pouring in there from good old days. The only difference in the instrument is that while in Iran or Central Asia it is made of wood, in Kashmir it is being made of baked clay maintaining its original form. In Iran it is called Tumbakh or Tunbak, in many places of the central Asia region it is known by Tumbal or Tumbari while in Kashmir it is Tumbaknaeer. The naeer is added because it tail-end looks like a pipe, which in Kashmir is called nore. Nore has become Naeer over the years, thus it is known as Tumbaknaeer or Tumbaknari.
I was given rice after a while; rice with spinach-like leaves laden with tiny pieces of meat. In the compound of the house, vegetables are grown at the backyard. The mehendi ceremony started. I had to sit inside the room. The wedding songs with the beating of tumbaknari also reached its crescendo. It certainly added flavor to the whole ceremony. After an hour or so I came out of the room. It was about 3 in the afternoon. The mist had uplifted by now and a mellow sun had started descending to the horizon. The daylight was fading fast.
Irtiqa’s papa was standing near the gate. He gestured me,
“Want to go outside?”
“Of course. Why not?”
“Come with me.”
The car was parked outside the gate. I was about to get into it when another car came from the opposite direction. Khalid and his friends have brought Aki. His full name is Aki Iqbal Mir- the one and only Disc Jockey (DJ) of Kashmir Valley. He is a family friend. He stayed with us for few days.
Bilal Qureshi was at the wheel. He, too, is a close family friend-works in the tourism department of Jammu and Kashmir. We drove on through Bandipora Road again. I saw a playing field on my left which had a long tin fence. Scrawled on that fence in sparkling coal-tar was the graffiti - ‘WE WANT FREEDOM’ and ‘GO INDIA, GO BACK’. The alphabets were all capital. It was painted with big stroke of brush. The place seemed familiar to me. Instantaneously, I remembered. This was the spot from where Irtiqa had sent me a video report just a couple of months back.
Shalteng is in the fringe area of Srinagar proper. The car traveled through the national highway and after ten minutes or so, more shops, bazaars and houses with tiled roofs came into vision. We were entering into the main town. There was no curfew or shutdown call by the Hurriyat Conference at that moment. It was well past four in the afternoon. Shops and markets were opened. Errant salesmen seated on sidewalks displayed their wares. Crowds thronged around. Jahangir Chowk, Lal Chowk was jammed with traffic and our car moved slowly negotiating the milling crowd. After some sundry works, the car rolled into a street which was relatively quiet and deserted. The shops on either side of the road were also completely closed. Their shutters pulled down. From the moving car, my eyes could not miss the graffiti on a closed shutter of a shop- ‘Welcome to Downtown’; below it, the telltale appellation- Hijb Mujahideen. I was startled. This was the place from where most of the violent incidents incipit. Spread beside the almost dead river Jhelum, Downtown is a vast area- a part of old Srinagar. History whispers through its meandering lanes and by lanes. Here, in Nowhatta, the exquisite Jamia Mosque stands; this was built around 1394 C.E. I visited it on a cold night a few days after.
Meanwhile, the car stopped. An old man standing on the other side of the road, with a packet in hand, crossed the road in a flash and stood beside the car. Immediately, the window rolled down, the packet delivered inside. I peeped inside it and saw a gorgeous, green lehenga; Irtiqa’s ceremonial dress for the engagement day.
The night was bitterly cold. Long hours of power outage had also added up to the misery. Winter had come. So, electricity had vanished from the entire Kashmir valley. It happens every year. Why? I got an amusing answer. The entire state secretariat had moved over to the winter capital, Jammu. The state has two capitals- Srinagar, the summer capital and Jammu, the winter capital. So the secretariat shifts according to the weather. Strangely, the electric power supply too shifts and darkness engulfs the entire valley. The valley gets four to five hours of electricity during winter, that too intermittently. But, this house at Ghalib Abad Lane had an electric generator. So the lack of power supply had not been a hindrance for the ongoing celebration. Also, kangdi was readily available. The frequent power cut happens to ignite much agitation among the valley dwellers. Kashmiris complain that the power generated in Kashmir is sent to other states. Even the Metro Rail of New Delhi is run by the electricity produced in the state, claim some.
The frequent power cut had, however, brought trouble for one guy in particular. He was, none other than, DJ Aki. He could not work properly. Instead, he began chatting with me. Music is his life. This passion for music has brought him to this profession but in places like Kashmir, where trouble simmers with uninterrupted regularity, it is difficult to thrive and prosper, he confessed. Inspite of all these difficulties, Aki keeps on struggling against the odd. But even now I read his frustration fill facebook post -words gush out like a stream venting utter dejection. He is bumping from one pillar to another but opportunities are hard to come by.
While talking to him, I felt Aki epitomizes the new generation of the Kashmir valley- a generation which wants to touch the sky; to speed up like a Formula 1 car and conquer the world. But who cares? Governments-be it in the state or at the center- does not pay heed to their aspirations. They remain mute and indifferent. Eventually, frustration seeps in. The psyche of an entire generation gets mangled. Kashmir turns into a wasteland, ostracize from the rest of the country as its children become street fighters, pelting stones on the khakis and olive greens. In reply, they get bullets and pellets.
I also met Muzamil aka Muzi- a student of Central University. He has a sweet lyrical voice. Singing is his passion and in future he wants to take up singing as his profession. But does India willing to recognize the talents of Muzi-Aki? Quite unlikely. The story is not at all rosy. Kashmir seems to be alienated from the rest of India. Srinagar does not belong to India. Here, each and everyone-from a toddler to an elder- dreams of azaadi.
In other parts of India, boys and girls from Kashmir often feel unsafe and insecure. Few years back, one evening I was walking down a street with a Kashmiri guy named Sajid in Mumbai’s Antop Hill. It was the time of Lord Ganesha’s festival. Hindus worship him as a remover of obstacles. He is depicted in the form of an elephant. Security remains tight during the time of the festival. The street was crowded. We saw at a distance that the police had put up a barricade. Security check was in full swing. All of a sudden, Sajid froze. I looked up at his face; it had turned ashen.
“What’s up?” I asked, alarmed.
“We cannot go this way,” he said. His voice was meek.
“Police will interrogate us.”
“Let them do it. We have our i.ds. There is no problem,” I was nonchalant.
“No, there is a problem. I am a Kashmiri and they will harass me. Few days back, I was badly interrogated near Victoria Terminus. They had detained me for a long time. Let us take another route, “Sajid pleaded.
I didn’t force him. Instantly, I came down to earth and we took a different route to reach our destination. Bitter tale like this can be heard from all over India. Who will wipe out this constant fear and anxiety?
I went to the bed well past midnight, fatigued. Khalid had put three heavy quilts along with a warm wrapper over my body. The bed itself was made warm through heater and was quite comfortable. Listening to the soft fusion music, which came oozing out from the third floor like a lullaby, I fell fast asleep.
When I woke up, it was still dark. I reached out for the cell phone. It was almost 8 am. I sat up after pulling down the heavy quilts over me. In the semi darkness of the room, my eyes fell upon the carpeted floor, where at least six or maybe seven bodies were lying, fast asleep. They were bundled in with woolen quilts, from head to toe. I came down from bed and hopped over those sleeping bodies to get near the door. Unbolting it, I came out of the room and the cold flung onto me violently. I retreated inside and got my woolens on and went outside again. I made my way to the bathroom.
I was standing near the long glass window of the porch and pulled the curtain sideways. Nightlong mists had gathered on the glass. Looking through it, it looked hazy. Through the haziness, I saw smoke billowing from the compound of the neighboring house. There was a long simmering chopped wood fire and plenty of vessels strewn around the ground. Some kind of preparation was on the offing. I came downstairs.
The kitchen was bustling with activities. A lady handed me a cup of nun chai. Bilal Sahib was there. I asked him what was going outside.
“ Wazwan,” a crisp reply came.
“And what is it?” I became curious.
Again a short reply came- “Kashmir’s pride.”
Bilal Sahib had his eyes fixed on me. They were dancing with amusement.
“Come; let me take you to the site.”
When we reached the neighbor’s compound, the bandobast made me awestruck.
Wazwan - the name itself conjures up the very essence of Kashmiriyat (Kashmiriness). It reflects, as a whole, the culture-tradition and above all the culinary world of Kashmir. ‘Waz’ stands for cooking and ‘wan’ means shop or simply room. When Wazwan is prepared, a temporary cooking shop or kitchen is erected. On one side of it, six to seven open wooden fire are kept burning. I saw at least thirty bowls of different types scattered on the ground. On the other side, three men were cutting meat. They are called ‘master-cutter’. They cut the meat (here it is mutton) according to the cuisine. Water was being boiled in two or three large bowls. Meat was being pulped with wooden mortar and pestle ( haman dista). Alongside the bowls, to my utter amazement, a hookah (shisha) was kept. The chefs, in turn, came and puffed once or twice in quick succession. Almost all the cuisines were meat based- mutton or chicken. At least, fifteen types of cuisines had to be cooked. Vaste Waz é (Master Chef) was supervising the whole process. Other chefs were only known as Waz é .
Wazwan is not a meal in simple terms. It is a ceremony in itself. As Bilal Sahib told me, “It involves preparation of multiple cuisines, but it also symbolizes the Kashmiriness.” Rightly so. All the dishes are served on a large copper platter called traem. The guests are seated in a group of four in a sheet called dastarkhwan to share the meal from the traem. But before the items start coming, comes Tasht- è -naer , which is used for washing hands and is taken around by waz é or close relatives who join serving items. Tasht is a copper vessel filled with water and naer is the basin in which guests wash their hands. Then the dishes start to arrive. Rice comes first followed by two long seekh kababs, cut into halves. Seekh kababs are minced meat roasted on skewers over hot coal. Kababs are served along with Tabak- maaz, a glossy meat made of lamb ribs. It is cooked twice and simmered in yogurt with spices and fried thoroughly. This dish is served dry. After this first course, arrives a large piece of mutton, which is called Daeni Phoul. While finishing this, Waze Kokur (Waza Chicken) makes its way on the traem. Waza Chicken is two chickens cooked and garnished with chopped coriander and melon seeds. While the guests are busy with Waza Chicken, another dish arrives silently. It is a stew made of lamb stomach and flavored with methi or fenugreek leaves. Rice is served again, followed by Rista; a red colored Kashmiri meatball or kofta, which is served in red gravy. Four ristas are served in each traem. Next come Roganjosh- perhaps the biggest dish in this gastronomic fiesta. Rogan means ‘oil’ and josh means ‘intense heat’: tender lamb pieces are cooked with Kashmiri spices. It is followed by Aab Gosht-lamb ribs cooked in milk based gravy, which is flavored by green cardamoms and saffron. It is not at all spicy. It counters Roganjosh quite well. Yakhni comes next which is based on yogurt with lamb. In between Aab Gosht and Yakhni, Waza Chamman is served, which is cheese simmered in tomato sauce. The finishing dish of the Wazwan is Ghustaba- minced velvety textured mutton balls cooked in curd and spices. It is similar to Rista, although much larger in size-larger than a cricket ball. Ghustaba has to be cut into four pieces by knife before eating. Wazwan ends with firni and yogurt. These are the desserts. Various kinds of chutneys, pickles and salads are kept alongside the traem.
While the preparation of Wazwan was in full-swing, I began chatting with a local journalist. It was around 11 in the morning. The mist had disappeared and the sun was up. Soft light was flowing all around us. The heat too was soft. Sameer Lone, a journalist with the Press Trust of Kashmir had come to visit Irtiqa. We both were sitting on plastic chairs on the compound.
We had a long chat. The two factions of the Hurriyat Conference-an organizational alliance of political parties and religious organizations aiming at self determination of the state- are under pressure, Samir told me. This alliance was founded on 9 th March, 1993. On one hand, common people are desperate to resume their normal activities; on the other, some of them want to continue the protest. The latter one is the younger generation, in the main. But Sameer told me a crucial thing- everyone wants azaadi. Now, there are different variants of azaadi. Some wants, and they are minuscule, to merge with Pakistan. But the majority, what I gathered from talking to various persons, wants self determination. The Hurriyat Conference too understands this. The two factions led by Mirwaiz Umar Farooq and Syed Ali Shah Geelani along with Yasin Malik, a separatist leader are coming together. Geelani, the veteran of these three has a good rapport with Jamaat-i- Islami, as he himself is an old leader of the Jamaat. Geelani, aged 87, is definitely the mentor. On 8 th July, 2016 when Burhan Wani was killed, this trio led the protest although initially, it was a spontaneous upsurge of the people. Protest calendar was started. Throughout the day ‘shutdown’ continued. Whenever shutdown is lifted for few hours, people throngs to the street to buy essentials. When I was in Srinagar, there were no shutdowns for two days in a row. The engagement ceremony fell on one of those days. Doubtless, it made the whole activities much easier.
The engagement ceremony took place at night. The night before that, the bridegroom’s family came to give mehendi to the bride. It was a gorgeous program. On the day of the engagement, in the evening, we had to go to the groom’s house, which was on the other part of the town. We mean, Khalid, Rayees and me. But as part of the ritual, we had to carry fifty one Murgh Musallam (roasted whole chicken). This is originally a Mughlai dish. However, it had been cooked much before the Mughal set their foot in Indian subcontinent. In the book, Tracing The Boundaries Between Hindi And Urdu, Ibn Batuta describes it as one of the favored dishes in the court of Sultan Muhammad Ibn Tughlaq.
The reception was fabulous. Here, for the first time I came across Fahad Handoo, the bridegroom. Fahad lives in Dubai. He has a good job there. We came back. There was no shutdown. The streets were jam-packed. It was only 15 minutes drive but it took almost one hour to commute.
My phone started ringing. It was Irtiqa.
“Bhai, how far are they?”
“Yes, they are almost following our car.”
The bridegroom cavalcade was literally following us. We reached home. Within five minutes the cavalcade began to arrive.
The bridegroom was, however, absent. The nikah-nama- the prenuptial agreement- had already been signed by him. It’s now the bride’s turn to sign.
The venue for this program was on the third floor hall. The Maulvi Sahib sat on one side. After the contract was signed by the bride, she was also brought to the floor hall. She sat on the other side. Maulvi Sahib began reciting from the Qur’an. The mother in law was sitting beside the bride.
After the recitation ended, the dishes began to arrive- the Wazwan was served. I also took part. For the first time in Kashmir, I sweated a little. I still cut joke with Irtiqa over this.
The Nikah engagement was over. But I was stranded in Srinagar. The weather turned miserable. The fog thickened. The airport was closed. All the flights were grounded. It remained like this for days. The valley was virtually cut off from the rest of the world. No one could get out of the town or come in.
One evening Rayees took me to Jamia Mosque in Nowhatta. Power cut, as usual, was continuing. There is a big market adjacent to the Mosque. Every shop had a power generator. The cacophonic sound of these generators was breaking the sublimity of the mosque. The mosque stood in the darkness. The Jummah namaz had been stopped because of the ongoing turmoil. Rayees is always bubbling with energy. He, himself, stays in Nowhatta. He managed the search light from the gatekeeper and took me inside the mosque. I had my socks in. But walking down the stony pathway, I began to feel the cold. This mosque was built by Sultan Sikandar, which was further extended by his son Zain-ul-Abidin. The mosque had a vast garden. We came near the fountain in the middle of the garden. There was no sound coming from outside. I looked up. There was no mist. Stars glittered over our head. Inspite of wearing heavy jacket, I was feeling chilly. We entered into the main hall. The floor is covered with carpet. These are prayer mats. The mark of Indo-Saracenic architecture is quite evident. There are 370 deodar wooden pillars, going up all the way from the floor to the roof. We roamed inside the hall for a few minutes. It was almost dark save some scattered tiny bulbs. There were people, small in numbers, offering namaz.
Another afternoon, my two journalist friends, Sajad Rasool and Nadiya Shafi took me for a tour. Sajad was driving. The afternoon was rolling slowly. The entire town was shrouded by light fog. In some places, the fog was quite dense. Whenever the car stopped in any intersection, impoverished children as well as elderly women in tattered woolens kept knocking the window. In times of crisis, they are the most vulnerable.
Sajad was telling me about Kashmir saga. The aloofness created by the Indian state, the depravation caused by the Indian state and so on. To India and Pakistan as well, Kashmir exists in the cartography. It is still a colony. Sajad's tone was caustic.
India is not reading the writing on the wall. Kashmir is sitting on a live volcano, which could erupt viciously any moment. Of late, an Indian administrative officer of Kashmir origin, Shah Faesal wrote that the Kashmiris must abandon macabre heroism and should work towards dignified exit from the conflict. It may sound good, but New Delhi is hell bent of not conferring any dignity to the Kashmiris. They don’t want any dialogue with the Kashmiris, I was told.
It is hard to frame Kashmir’s agony. I realized that it is impossible to tell the truth about Kashmir in reportage or in human rights reports. Here fiction becomes the reality and, perhaps, it could do justice of telling the truth. Kashmiris are living under one of the densest military occupation for more than 25 years now. I have talked to numerous people and come to the conclusion that there is an enormous chasm of distrust between the Indian state and the people of Kashmir. India’s indifference towards Kashmir must end. The Kashmiris want to live with full honor and dignity. They don’t want to remain as a backwater of India.
But one day, I had to take leave. My home was calling me. I had a morning flight to catch. A pall of gloom descended inside the house of Ghalib Abad Lane. Gudia Rani came and embraced me. I took leave from Irtiqa's parents. But to take leave from Irtiqa was simply agonizing. Our eyes welled up. We hugged each other and I kissed her forehead. It was a painful moment. But I also realized at the same time that I will be back presto.
For me, a home away from home is waiting in Srinagar.