For the past nine years, Zahid G Mohammad has been writing a column titled ‘Nostalgia’ in the Greater Kashmir newspaper. In his columns, Zahid attempts to reconstruct the politico-cultural history of old Srinagar, where he was born, simply by writing about the mundane and the important facets of mid-twentieth century life in the city.
Two collections of these columns have appeared so far: Srinagar: My City, My Dreamland and, recently, Srinagar, The City of Resistance and Culture: Story of Downtown Boy. Both have been published by Gulshan Books Kashmir.
In the summer of 1968, Khana-e-Khuda (The House of God), a film about the Hajj pilgrimage, was screened at Shiraz theatre in Srinagar. To make it fit for the screening, the theatre was sacralised by giving it a bath. It was also probably for the first time that patriarchy didn’t stifle women’s enthusiasm to visit a movie house. The author recalls watching people cry merely by seeing posters of the film because only a few people could afford the pilgrimage in those days. The government had exempted the film from entertainment tax, schools were directed to take the children to the theatre, and special shows were organized in schools and colleges. Today, Shiraz is a CRPF camp.
It is vignettes like these that make the two collections interesting. Zahid wants to underscore the singularity of the experience of growing up in one of the least studied cultures in the world -- the unique culture of Downtown Srinagar. In these columns one detects the anxiety of a writer who frets that if he were not to pen down his experiences, nobody else would because children are not taught their own history in Kashmir’s schools.
Walking distance from Zahid’s native place in old Srinagar are more than half-a-dozen Sufi shrines, the Mughal-era Jamia Masjid, the tomb of the immensely popular Sultan Budshah, architecturally rich clusters where master craftsmen make traditional Kashmiri crafts, a Pathan-era fort, a now-extinct water canal where people would take a boat ride to Dal Lake, and many other cultural landmarks. This area was and remains the hotbed of politics and Zahid’s columns encompass all its richness.
About two miles from the author’s native place in old Srinagar, some two dozen shawl weavers, who were protesting against forbiddingly harsh taxes, were drowned after the maharaja’s cavalry ran over them on a narrow wooden bridge. This was probably the first workers’ rebellion in the sub-continent. A few historians have mentioned the massacre but it did not become part of the collective consciousness unlike subsequent massacres. Zahid’s collections preserve such precariously placed memories.
As doses of Zahid’s own nostalgia, the columns would be boring if he didn’t bring them alive with digressions and context, little nuggets of the past that explain some burning issues of the present.
For example, while recollecting how exam results were declared out loud at the morning assembly and how the happy kids ran home to break the news, the author takes a sudden detour to reminisce about how, at dusk during summer and autumn, boys would break into sloganeering at the sight of flocks of birds.
Kawa yenwoel, Mirdadun byoel khodayan gole
Kawa yenwoel, Kripun byoel khodayan gole
(Listen, the assembly of crows, may God wipe out the progeny of Mirdad and Kripa)
Mirdad Khan, an Afghan governor, and Kripa Ram, a dewan of a Dogra Maharaja, were notorious for enforcing harsh diktats during two cruel eras in Kashmir history. In a strife-torn place, such slogans linger and have the habit of popping up at the unlikeliest moments.
The twin volumes bring to life an era when small groups of charas smokers (shodas) had their own sanctuaries called shoda taqi, which were a sort of marijuana/opium bar (Shodas were looked upon as kind hearted, Sufi-spirited men and were served wazwan on special occasions); when a cyclist called Afsar Khan cycled non-stop for a week in a tent (People named their kids ‘Afsar’ (officer) after him); when, call it coincidence or fraternizing, several drug store owners became underground political rebels.
Read more: How I became a stone thrower for a day
The contemporary situation in Kashmir finds resonance in the chapter entitled ‘Children of Resistance’ from the more recent volume. There were stone throwers even half a century ago. One, a girl named Syeda in the author’s mohalla, “threw stones at police from the attic of her home”.
“Many boys were envious of her.”