‘Apko dar nahin lagta didi?‘, asks my father’s rather chatty chauffeur as he zips me to the airport at half seven. ‘Lagta he!’, I reply distractedly as I play with my phone. ‘Phir kya zarurat he jane ki?’ ‘Maut jahaan aani he, vahi aayegi. Waise bhi- humara kyaa he? Na koin uppar niche, ronewalla na koin ronewalli, janabe alli!’ (Incase you’re wondering, the dramatics are the consequences of my childhood crush on the Angry Young Man).
It’s the (in)famous Jummah day in Kashmir. The day when the clashes between the armed force personnel and the protestors are intensified by religious fervour. The killing of Burhan Wani, has had a devastating effect on the people of the Valley. The aftermath of that – more than 37 dead, hundreds injured and blinded due to pellets. This count doesn’t even include the loss of life or the number of injuries suffered by the Armed Forces. Those of us who frequent the Valley, could sense something unsettling was coming this way.
I arrive to a deserted city. It’s eerily peaceful. There’s a curfew but boarding passes are curfew passes, so we are let off easily. The cabbie drops me off in front of the hotel, which is walking distance from trouble. I check in and get to work. The Friday prayers commence. People pray and then leave. I wait around with the men in uniforms, who are kind enough to offer me a chair. I have never been on this side of the fence – no questioning, just politeness and courtesy. Over the walkie talkies it’s ‘alpha’, ‘charlie’ and ‘romeo’.
A couple of hours later- the word on the street is – the city has been peaceful. I head back to the hotel. In the evening, the curfew relaxes and I head out to buy some beverages. The hotel is running short of ration supplies. Thankfully, the ‘doomster’, has munchies to get her through the next few days. I ask a few people but every thing is shut. Right then a scooter stops. ‘Pehchana?’ ‘Haan, photographer hein aap?’. Not that I remember but has to be. Turns out he is. Mr Z, introduces himself and offers me a ride. ‘Did you manage to shoot?’, he asks as I hop on. I give my standard reply to most questions, ‘No.’ ‘But I might go to the hospitals tomorrow,’ I continue. ‘Nahin waha nahin jana. Maar raheen he waha par press ko.’ ‘Since when have kashmiri men started hitting women?’, I ask him. ‘No they won’t look at you as a woman but as a photographer. It’s really bad over there.’ I’m very confused by the time we exchange numbers and say our goodbyes.
Buy some stuff from my regular guy at Rajbagh, walk for a few kilometres and find an auto. I ask the auto guy if I will get bashed up by the locals? He’s aghast. ‘You’re our guest, please come and stay with my family. No one will hurt you.’ I thank him profusely. When I reach the hotel, I ask the manager if he’s heard of any such instances. ‘Ofcourse not! No one will do anything to you.’ By dinner time the news has spread. The waiter who comes in to hand over the omelette, is very concerned. ‘Ma’am mene suna he aap ko kissi ne bola ke aap ko maar padegi. Hum aurato ki bohat izzat karte he. Mein aapke saath jaoonga, koi kucch nahin karega.’
I reassure him that I’m aware of the decency of the common Kashmiri man.
Right on cue I get a call from my former assistant. He’s one of the few people who is aware of my whereabouts. Since the mobile networks are jammed he’s been unable to get through. ‘Mein ghabra gaya, subha se apka phone nahin mil raha he. Somehow I managed to get through to the hotel. I’ve informed my family that you’re in Srinagar. Go to my house. They’ll take care of all your needs!’ Somehow, I convince him that it’s important for me to stay put. By the time we say ‘khudda hafiz’, I’ve decided to continue as per my original plan.