In Srinagar, some things are kept really simple. Sheep is for eating and so we did. For four days. For every single meal.
We weren’t complaining. We were among friends and at a wedding. The group: two Malayalees and two Bengalis, and we had brought with us an appetite, a capacity, and a habit of scepticism. Our friends had also brought some T-shirts with colourful slogans. ‘One Arrack, two arrack’ said one, screaming regionality, and, ‘Hip hurrah for Mayan culture’ said another, to show, I guess, internationality. It missed wedding-wear by many yards but that’s just Manoj, my friend.
Anyway, in the beginning, it is true, we did obsess about the meat. Meat made in curd. Meat pounded into balls with a wooden mallet. Meat with haq saag, meat curried with prunes (‘latest dish’ said one of the wazas while serving during the wedding), shallow fry sheep teats, sheep innards, sheep marrow, sheep kidneys… I mean we really got to know the animal and feel for him.
The lights are on
Perhaps there was a reason we were so taken up with the food. There was a sense that if we talked of something else, we’d see something else. Being Indian in Kashmir is a peculiar problem with Kashmiri friends.
“It’s not so bad. Things do look better. This road was crawling with army soldiers the last time. I was here last year and they aren’t here now,” I thought to myself in the car on the way to the hotel from the airport. Things were normal, things were just fine.
Everywhere I looked, there were evidences of normality. The barber cutting hair in the saloon late at night. Lights on the
Exhibition Grounds. A family sitting by the boulevard. The crowds at Nishat and Shalimar gardens. The lights on Hari Parbat. Couples on the jetty. My cell phone that worked as I SMSed a friend in Delhi: “Rite now sitting before the Dal. Starry nite. Breeze etc.” Things were normal, things were just fine.
To file such information, there are a few things to be kept in mind. File this in a way that it looks good. Not in between the custody deaths, the forceful and still-present capture of personal property and a civil population silenced by years of counter-militancy operations. Find such information a space on a shelf that underlines our sensitivity — the investment in the new airport. The money spent to operate fountains close to the turning for Chashm-e-Shahi and Pari Mahal. The money spent on dredging that part of the Dal where tourists go. Pensions to widows… File it there.
Our stories, their stories
Downtown. 6:30 pm. The beauty of Srinagar (these days, you have to hunt for it) was fading fast. The sun went into hiding behind Jami Masjid and a small pool near the prayer area, inside, rippled with the dip of hands coming in for a quick wash. Somehow, Shah Rukh Khan slips into the conversation. “Is he nice looking still?” ask school students Hamza and Noor. I tell them about seeing him at an airport — a year back. They are happy. To them, it’s still a recent reference. Srinagar’s movie halls closed years ago.
Another stop: KDB Dry Fruits on Residency Road. Mr Babbar, the proprietor gifts us kahwa (tea) and honey. He is our friend’s nextdoor neighbour in Srinagar and we had met him at the wedding. Mr Babbar is a well-traveled man. “But everywhere I go — I go as a Kashmiri,” he says handing us a packet. The packet says ‘Save Dal lake — National Heritage.’ Schizophrenia — we don’t have it.
By 7:30 pm., we are back in the city waiting in our cars while our friend makes a call from a booth. Two CRPF jawans come by. One of them is from Phapamau, UP. The Allahabadi among us engage him in talk. “They also have good people among them. See they have invited you for his wedding,” the jawan says, as if making a concession. In his mind, it’s clear — it’s us and them.
“How long does it take to build a decent airport?” we asked our friend as he drove us to the airport the next day. He shrugged. “Well, some promises were certainly kept,” we joked among ourselves. “The flight attendant said it would be an hour’s ride from Delhi and an hour’s ride to Srinagar, it was.”
Perhaps there was a reason we were so taken up with timetables. There was a sense that if we talked of something else, we’d see something else. We would remember the layered garden of a Sufi shrine which the BSF has now turned into a kitchen. We would remember passing Papa II, now dismantled, the dreaded interrogation centre near the old chief minister’s residence. We would remember talking about burnt-down tourist zones and sport stadiums and posters of missing men and children. We would remember walking on the open road from the waiting area from a shoe-box airport, with memorials on the side to fallen soldiers. We would remember seeing the new airport, half-made and utilitarian, visible and embarrassing.
It’s a problem being Indian in Kashmir. Especially if you have Kashmiri friends.