The Women of Kashmir

Candles in the Wind

An entire body of works, from 2007 till 2022, is part of a book project, titled- The Women of Kashmir. Over the years much has changed in my subject’s lives personally and in terms of their identity! I might take some pictures next year, as well, you never know with me! The book is divided into a few parts, some of the works have been shown over the years at the India Art Fair, like the one above but most of them have only been emailed to a few curators and ofcourse Mary Ellen Mark (attended her workshop in 2010) who was instrumental in directing the works this way .

Many a books have come out from the time I began. That doesn’t hinder my project in any way. When one initially began, the only way female photographers would shoot Kashmir, was to go through NGO’s. I took the same route, met Parveena and Parvez, though they were very helpful, I realized that I don’t do well with viewing the world through anyone’s eyes but my own- skewed, tainted, cynical ones! Plus, I’m not an activist, philanthropist not even a feminist. Right from the word go, from my first book, which is stark white and black with hints of colour, to my first film- Loss- which looked at the problems faced by the Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandits, one holds what one calls the ‘ greediest view of the world’, wanting to look at everything- from every possible direction one can!

There’s much that one hasn’t been able to do in Kashmir, there’s much when I view the works in their entirety, look at and think, wait a little longer, try a little harder but without organisations pushing you, without proper press credentials and with being looked suspiciously at by both parties- the Pandits think I’m Muslim and with an agenda and the Kashmiri Muslims, a lot of times think I’m a spy; this is what I could do.

Like curator after curator, has been telling me, it’s time to release it, maybe it is! But one’s apprehensive, it ain’t good enough just about yet and once the works come out…I might not be able to return ‘home’!

Side note/ technology is handy, anytime you get accused by some hot shot-there’s Flicker, which will display all your file info and your emails, too can help determining who all were sent the images. This is valuable info for long term projects because anyone can quickly churn out something and turn the tables on you. When I put up the image above, a very famous male photographer got pissed with me. Someone who uses ‘black backgrounds’! Thankfully, for me the pictures had already been published, long before, he did his show and my first book, was filled with such pictures. Unfortunately, I can’t accuse him of the same because it’s needless, doesn’t work in reverse and two because I have studied and taught photography, so what a hypocrite I would be, to get my own references from international photographers and then accuse someone else!


Ever since I’ve returned from Kashmir, whenever I see the national flag it reminds me that there’s an entire community, which has been told that the members will loose their jobs and their properties can also get confiscated if a flag isn’t hoisted at their homes , tomorrow.

So while some of us may enjoy our freedom, imagine if someone threatened you, with an ultimatum to hoist a flag at your place so that they could show the world and its mummy that Kashmir is now officially a part of India. 75 years of independence. Lets never take our freedom for granted and lets be aware that anyone who can threaten another’s rights can take yours away in a jiffy. While there’s much to be proud off…still hoping for a better India….a better future for the coming generations. Har ghar tiranga, at the cost of what?

Home away from home

Mughal Road

‘I believe wherever dreams dwell, the heart calls it home.’- Dodinsky

(Video shot Enroute Gurez)

So many of my memories from the past twelve years are entwined with Kashmir, a place I first visited as a child with my mum. Later, sometime in my twenties, I remember seeing Zila Appa, clad in white sitting opposite the Dal, singing with Muzaffar Sahab’s musicians, while I shot her, totally enamoured by her voice and the place. Travelling with friends, family, alone, accompanied, for work, for leisure and most of all for the spot near the Dal, where I’ve tucked away the broken pieces of me. I return sometimes, just to see if they are still there. Like tonight, I long for my spot.

One understands that just because one has a birth certificate and a passport mentioning the place of birth as J& K it doesn’t make the place home. But my love of places, like Kashmir and Pushkar has been more intense than the love that one has felt for any man. I should stop though, it causes plenty of confusion. My concept note for the series 2019, that drew a comparison between Srinagar and Delhi, mentioned my home- Delhi and my ‘home away from home’ Kashmir. A journalist visited the stall, at the art fair, read the concept note and wrote ‘Kashmiri photographer Saadiya Kochar’. A compliment for me and I’m sure a little infuriating for any Kashmiri, who might chance upon it. The journalist and I never did get to chat and I guess my name confuses everyone in any case, so not her fault. One should have been more careful.

In any case, as the rumour mills churn and one hears there might be another bifurcation the place of birth on my new passport, might just mention Jammu. One wonders how much the people of this land will continue to suffer? Now that we’ve all experienced lockdowns, it might help you empathise with a twenty year old whose life in Kashmir, has just been a series of such shutdowns with no internet and the fear of being locked up. That’s if they haven’t lost someone due to the conflict. God should have mercy and we should have some empathy!

Igloo Cafe- Gulmarg

The Igloo, in Gulmarg isn’t an abode for Eskimos and hunters, rather it’s a cafe for travellers, an attraction for anyone who likes the snow or kahwa to bear the chilly winters of the Vale. My solo trip to Gulmarg, wouldn’t have been complete without a visit to the newest, trendiest cafe in Kashmir.

Syed Waseem Shah, the owner/ creator/ artist, of the Igloo Cafe, is the brain behind this innovative space. I didn’t get to meet him nor did I meet many people there, as I went too early. The tourists were busy skiing, so they would saunter in much later, told me the manager. He was kind enough to keep me entertained, by providing information and taking pictures of me.

If like me, you’re strolling around Gulmarg and can’t figure out where it is, look for the Kolhai Hotel. Pay the nominal entry fee and step into an approximately fifteen feet high, cave like structure made of snow, which can accommodate maximum sixteen people at a time. As of now, there are limited items on the menu, since there’s always the fear of the snow structure melting, with the heat of the food and beverages, I was told. I didn’t care. Give me any kind of tea, anywhere, anytime and I’m sold.

Solo travels- Pahalgam

Solo travels

Pahalgam, also known as the ‘Valley of Shepherds’, is frequented by yatries as well, as tourists in the summer. But in the winters, it’s relatively less crowded than the favourite destination of Kashmiris and tourists alike-Gulmarg. Neither the shepherds, nor the locals crowd the main market and most hotels and shops are still closed. Yet, this time around, I saw more tourists here and everywhere else, than I have ever seen in Kashmir, during the winters.

Posing with the girls, who picked me up after my fall. They all wanted selfies. Me too!
I was stopped while walking down the Main market road, for a selfie. I felt like half celebrity, half Martian.

A few years ago, I journeyed to Baisaran in the winter, with a couple of Kashmiri photographers for a day. That’s when I realized, that Pahalgam has it’s own charm in the winter. The mini- Switzerland or so it’s called is a quaint place, surrounded by snow capped mountains. Of course, I was driving then, this time around Farookh Uncle (my cab guy) traversed the terrain, with me. Being driven around by someone who can handle the winding roads of Kashmir and not be afraid or maniacal, is a bit hard. How I’ll explain later. But Uncle, is an experienced older man, with tremendous skill. For someone who hates being driven around, to say that, means the man must be fabulous at what he does.

Shot around Pahalgam, met a bunch of people, who wanted to take selfies with me. Slipped and fell on the snow and hurt my back badly but my models were kind enough to pick me up, while giggling non stop. Saw breathtaking scenic beauty and actually enjoyed being there for a change.

This time around I had my customary solo date, at a restraunt in Pahalgam. I sat by myself, ordered some yakhni, butted into someone’s conversation about Kashmir and got told, ‘You’re lying, I’m sure you’re Kashmiri!’ Each time someone says that to me, I can always imagine my mum’s fairness obsessed family going, ‘ae, andhera kum kerah!’ ( as dark as a dense, dark night, that’s what they used to call me, when I was little). I get a tan and it stays for months, plus I love the sun and I happen to work mostly I’m a shade of beige to light brown. That’s apparently horrible coming from a family that’s primarily been born white as milk or has got fairness treatments done, to look as white as milk. So, this statement always amuses me.

Anyhow, Uncle wanted to eat by himself but I somehow managed to drag him into the eatery for one of my favourite beverages- kahwa. We shared an awkward few minutes, as he sat on another table, facing me and talking, making me acutely aware of my gender or class. We rarely meet others, where that doesn’t come into play. After, which we headed to Betaab Valley.

Faking snowfall

The entry fee at the park is around fifty bucks, right now, goes upto a hundred later. There were more than enough tourists from – Punjab, Bengal and Kerala, who had flocked this serene spot. I had the best time, as I met the cutest guide cum photographer. ‘Ma’am, please let me come with you. This is how we run our homes.’ he kept trying to coax me. I kept trying to convince him that I was there to take pictures and not to pose, but eventually gave in. I’m so glad I did. After I finished my work, he made me slap a ball of snow, to fake snowfall. Took me around various spots and made me pose. Oddly enough, none of the photographers that you meet at the gate carry cameras (they use your phone to take the pictures), only when you walk inside, you find DSLR’s swinging from the shoulders of men, sitting next to different colours of velvet phirans. But I would personally vouch for these cameraless guides calling themselves photographers. They make you have loads of fun.

With the photographer and the sledge guy

Solo Travels Srinagar

Came to Srinagar yesterday, armed with all that SB comes with-bitchiness, arrogance, anger, resentment and as soon as the plane touched the runaway of Srinagar Airport, SC was back in all her glory. I’ve been told by many, any place outside of Delhi, I’m nicer. They get to see the other one, I guess.

One’s recently becoming more and more aware of one’s privileges. To be fair, when you live a life, that your relatives term, ‘living under poverty line’, your view of reality and your privileges is quite skewed and mine despite all my travels and having friends from different strati of society, still is. Read an article before coming here, about how these three boys travelled to Kashmir and used public transport to go from one place to other and I realized twelve years down the line and that is something, I’ve barely done. I have no idea, what it’s like to catch a bus from the airport. So yesterday, I did. It cost 70 bucks and I met interesting characters, on the way. A girl from Ladakh who was coming from Delhi but staying in Srinagar, a man who was returning from hibernation and so and so forth. But if you are pressed for time, you’ll be waiting for forty minutes on the bus, as passengers fill the seats, slowly.

Hats off to those young lads, who managed going from one destination to other by local transport because to find a local bus, in the winter, to take you to Pahalgam or Gulmarg is impossible. I tried and even the local passenger taxis don’t take you to Pahalgam, straight. They drop you at Anantnag and from there you have to catch another one cab to Pahalgam. Since, one is here for work and not for budget travelling, I chucked the idea of doing that. Lugging my overweight bag around, in the winter, by myself, waiting for local taxis, isn’t a feasible option for me. The anonymity that it grants you, though, is quite enticing. Some other time, for now, Farookh Uncle (my cab guy) and I remain steadfast companions.

Solo Travels- Ganderbal and Srinagar

Chasing Autumn in Kashmir

‘Ajab bahar dikhai lahu ke chhinton ne, khizan ka rang bhi rang-e- bahar jaisa tha’- Junaid Hazin Lari.

At Hazratbal for the Jumma Namaz

On Thursday, Farooq uncle, my trusted taxi driver, took me to Ganderbal, in search of a particular place, where I’d shot autumn, approximately seven years ago. Ganderbal is around 20 kms away from Srinagar and one spent quite a lot of time there, initially. Though, not so much at the Manasbal lake, which gets a step sisterly treatment due to its famous siblings- The Dal and The Wullar. Nor at Jharoka Bagh, a Mughal garden which is said to have been made by Jehangir for Noor Jahan. But more so in the villages, of this particular district. One has sat around, on many winter nights and listened to stories of terrible atrocities. Have been yelled at by a grieving father whose son was torched alive, during the militancy. Have walked through the villages, had endless cups of Kahwa and have also been called a ‘ kofur’. But on the other hand, have also experienced the best of Kashmiri hospitality, in this district. The kindest people, I’ve met in the valley, live in these areas.

I needed an image from there, that can be blown up really big for a particular space and many of my photographs, were taken with cameras which were not so advanced (starting from a seven mega pixel) . As the years have progressed, so has technology. But of course as I went to the same spot, the tree stood there but everything else had changed. A wall, was blocking my view. So, you get what you get and then on days when you don’t get anything, you make lemonade. Though the trip, wasn’t particularly fruitful and one did not eat the fabulous rista that one loves from here, I did manage to finish my work in Srinagar, itself. In the midst of it all, also ended up giving a a few bytes, to some journalists. One looks like a balloon, so one has refrained from sharing those.

At a park in Ganderbal.

The next two days, I spent in the city. It becomes more and more problematic shooting, in Srinagar. People are angry and extremely suspicious of photographers but with good reason. These ring wing funded channels, are making it difficult for us lesser mortals , to shoot on the streets. If I was Kashmiri, I would also be weary. The security personnel too have become more cautious. Though, one has spent many a Fridays making images at Hazratbal, I was stopped and told that they are not allowing the media to shoot. ‘ Mein hu hi nahin media se sir, I’m a tourist.’ I replied. To know when to blend in and when to stand out, is an art that one continues to learn in Kashmir. Surviving in the Valley, requires the traits and skills of a chameleon, it requires extremely high levels of adaptability, that only the locals have mastered after decades, of living in a conflict zone, under scrutiny and lockdowns.

Solo Travels- Bijbehara

Solo travels in Bijbehara, Srinagar.

The last time I visited Bijbehara, was in 2016, for Mufti Sahab’s funeral. The Dara Shikoh, Mughal Garden is his final resting place. Brijbehara, is famous for it’s Chinar Trees and is known as the Chinar town. Also known as Vijbor or Vijbror, it’s around forty five kms away, from Srinagar. The oldest Chinar tree in the region can be found in Paadshahi Bagh. Both the gardens were closed, due to the ongoing pandemic but my taxi driver- Farooq Uncle, is a real hustler. He convinced the guards at Paadshahi to let me enter by telling them, I’ve come all the way from Delhi. The one’s at Dara Shikoh Garden, wouldn’t let us in because there were a lot of young boys, who were loitering around, trying to gain access.

Anyhow, on the way back we were famished and stopped midway, to pick up something from Hattrick. Right next to it, an older gentleman was serving the best Kahwa, I’ve had in Kashmir.

Special Kahwa, served from this beautiful Samovar.

The only way to survive Kashmir on your own, is to miraculously find, soft spoken, kind local men, who like you, don’t like to listen to the word no. Now, before you start judging me, it’s in the context of work. I’ve never liked flexible people and especially when it comes to working with me…I like people who can lock horns, are stubborn in a quiet kind of way. They mitigate the effects of my aggression with their voice, yet manage to get the work done by not budging. Uncle is like that. He’s like a much older version of my former assistants. Plus, SC adores him. He calls her beta and fusses over her. ‘ I’m bringing a doctor for you!’, he told me yesterday. ‘ Na, I‘ll bounce back’, I reassured him. Like I say, this is the best place to travel on your own. From the hotel owner to the staff, everyone is awfully kind.

I find it unnecessary to look at different things or visit different places. It’s when you see the same thing over and over again, each time it starts to appear different and this is Jannat. Firdaus- jahan asli mein sadko par hure chalti he, where the women are stunning and the men gorgeous. Jahan sirf roshni badalne se sab alag lagta he aur mausam badalne se sirf ped, paude nahi badalte, aap khud andar se alag mehsoos karte ho. Yeh Jannat to he hi, jahanum bhi he, jahan itni khubsurti aur itna dard he. Both heaven and hell simultaneously, exist in Kashmir-there’s unparalleled beauty and gut wrenching pain, everywhere!

With the change in the technology and the increased megapixels that the cameras offer you now, the quality of the pictures is far superior, from my earlier works in say 2010. But when you live somewhere or spend an extended period of time there, drive around all the time, literally chasing the seasons, the moments you end up catching, can’t be caught that easily in a shorter span. But nevertheless, we try.


Sick as a bat

After a few of hours, of lazying around, talking and chatting with a concerned relative, my bua, who fusses over me, like I am her child, AA and the Mother Hen, I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed and got on with it. Despite the staff at the hotel asking me to rest.

Shot the autumn leaves, then went to Gulshan books to pick up books for MJ. You guessed it right, that’s why I dragged myself out of bed. Mein bol to rahee hu, I’m like a 14 year old. My assumption is that since I am talking (writing, same, same, baat nahi karti na me) about it, this whole thing will pass away easily. With me, it’s when I don’t say anything and I push the person with all my might, that’s when I’m really starting to get affected by the man. But is he weakening my knees, totally? Mummy, yes!

Anyhow, caught up with my friend at Ahdoos. Since I’d skipped lunch, I was going to have some mirchi korma, so I asked him to drop in. The outdoor seating is nice, for a winter afternoon. When I sat down to eat, it was 4.30 and my friend arrived at 5.00. By the time we left, it was freaking freezing. I always make it a point to catch up with him, at least, once, irrespective of how short my trip is. His no nonsense attitude, where he mostly says what he thinks, irrespective of how politically wrong it may be, is a refreshing change.

Anyhow, took a stroll at the Dal, in the evening. Being the creature of habit that I am, dropped in for Kahwa, at Shah cafe. We all sat around, the owner and staff, talked about Kashmiri food. They said Ahdoos serves the best but I disagreed. I broke it down for them – Rista-Ganderbal and Rajbagh, Mirchi Korma and phirni- Ahdoos, Proper wazwaan thali- the Grand and Kahwa- on the way to Brijbehara. They insisted the best food is found at Kashmiri weddings. I agree. I got up to leave, ‘Ma’am sit for a while’, they said. We talked about everything Kashmiri and my love for all of it. Soon, I will leave and then a part of me will keep longing, for the Dal. Until then, kahwa!

Solo Travels- Pampore

In a saffron field in Pampore, Kashmir.
Solo traveller in Kashmir
Little babies and I. This one on my shoulder had as foul a temper, as mine. I just needed to call him ‘handsome’ and he was floored.

I hate flying and especially to Kashmir, as then one gets confined to the city. But last time, I was here, I found a very patient and polite gentleman who dropped me to the airport. So, Farooque uncle and I have been in touch, ever since I left and he’s probably the only person other than my ex assistant, and I, who knows what my plans are. See, dealing with my trust issues, trying to prove the father wrong, kissi pe itebar kar sakti hu mein, just a little bit!

So, FU, picked me up from the airport and drove me straight to Pampore, as the last of the flowers were being picked. The Saffron bulb, is said to have come with the Persian Sufi saints and traders to the Valley and though growing it helped the locals , it’s now fast disappearing from Kashmir. The farmers claim the land in the area, can only grow saffron and without it they will have a tough time surviving.

I spent a few hours working, then checked into the hotel. Charged my phones and then started walking towards Residency Road. To hell with Corona, that seems to be the attitude in Delhi as well as in Srinagar! Women and children, thronged the road , accompanied by their husbands and fathers, to the Sunday Market. I was followed by what seemed like 20 year olds. One slowly approached me as I stopped to tie my laces. ‘ Kyaa mein aap ke saath chal sakta hu?’ he asked very politely. I looked at him, SB growling at him, just itching to say something terrible but SC, replied, ‘ Mujhe akele chalne ki adat he!’ He tried to convince me politely, that there are armed men around and he’s just concerned for my safety but I just shrugged and kept walking.

It was past three and I was famished. A Kashmiri Thali at Grand, was what I was craving. The place was packed and a few people stared as I sat down to eat but I just looked at them and smiled as they gawked. Let’s not even pretend, people don’t gawk at women in Delhi, over here at least they don’t say, ‘ kyaa kare madam aap jesso, ko dekh kar hilana parta he!’ Yes! A man said this to me in Delhi recently, when I asked him, why he’s peeing on a flyover. Kashmiri men are probably the most decent of the lot, not all, but most.

Age has caught up with me, for sure. I finished the Thali, which had everything from Meethi Maaz to Gushtaba, accompanied by Rista, Seekh Kabab, Roghan Josh and of course Tabak Maaz ( which is the only Kashmiri dish I’m not a fan off). I polished off the food, with the same kind of pleasure I feel, as I land in Srinagar. Sheer bliss, total and complete love. ‘Please Death, whenever you come let it be here’, I find myself wishing when I feel, eat, do or see something that tickles my senses. It seems just the air tickles my senses, pleasure and pain are intensified!

Anyway, for the first time after gobbling the said Thali, one felt as one was going to explode but duty called. So I walked around making pictures, according to the brief. By the time I was done, it was getting dark but somehow I managed to drag myself to the Dal. Walked or bounced around is more like it (bouncing slowly up and down like a ballon, is more how you would describe my walk) prayed fervently, froze completely. By quarter to eight, I had spent almost two hours, just walking and sitting by the side of the Dal and my bottom was frozen by the end of it. Surprisingly, I caught myself thinking about MJ, a couple of times. ‘Mujhe kissi dewane ne kaha tha, ki mujhe koi dewana, Kashmir dikhayga!’, his message came to my mind. ‘ Would be sweet!’ SC thought, as I walked. ‘This Pathan is just messing with your head and your head is quite screwed up in any case!’ SB shut down the thought, quickly.

All in a day’s work!

Rushed to a small cafe at Nehru Park and gulped down a cup of hot Kahwa. ‘Biryani Madam?’ asked the owner. ‘ I told him, I eat Wazwaan and couldn’t get a bite in. We chatted about Kashmiri dishes, Harrisa which is my all time favourite and Ab Ghosh. His father joined the conversation, as we talked about Kangris and village life. They asked me to stay longer, but it was already 8.15 and it would take me a while to walk back to Dal Gate, so I politely declined. As I walked back, I put the songs ‘ Hawa ke Saath Saath’ and ‘ Paniyon sa Paniyon sa’ on repeat, so that somehow I could miraculously, reach my hotel. They got the job done and here I am all set to call it a night!

Solo Date #65- Brew Bakes

Brewbakes, Srinagar

A franchisee of the pan India, coffee shop- Brew Bakes, can now be found on the Boulevard in Srinagar. As it was just a stone throw away from my hotel, I spent a lot of time here, alone and even with friends. From pizzas to pastas, kathi rolls and burgers, their menu is an interesting mix of fusion food.

Though I sat indoors, as I was hot and sweaty having spent most days, just walking around, getting tanned ( family- hai waise hi kali si, sunscreen bhi nahin lagandi), the outdoor seating is perfect for catching up in the evenings. They open early, around nine, so it’s an idle spot for breakfast meetings. With a view of the Dal, can anything be better?

Koi Apna Nahin

Koi apna nahin sevaye ye Dal ke kinare ke,

Jisme humare ashq behete he.

Kal usne mere aansoone ke saath, meri duae bhi shayad kabul kar li. Ankhon se dard bahaa aur hathon se tazbi ki aadhi motiya pani mein shareek ho gayee. Shayad sab salamat rahen ge.

A few days ago, I got a message from an acquaintance from Punjab, who I keep bumping into at the hotel in Kashmir, with pictures of Srinagar, asking me to visit. I’d been meaning to come here, ever since mum passed away because no other place in the world, makes the enormity of my feelings seem so insignificant and make me feel more inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. So Kashmir is always, the slap that I give myself, my reality check. I got the message while I was sitting with my Dad, who literally pushed me, into going, which is hilarious. I said to him, ‘you have to be the only father in the world who will push his daughter to go and meet some man, you’ve never met, who will be staying in the same hotel, by himself. ‘ To which his reply, was the same as always, ‘ you’re not a child, I know you can handle men and right now, you really need some company. Go just talk to someone, you need to.’ He’s right, I needed the company, of the Dal.

So, I arrived here, armed with my camera and books, which I haven’t opened and got right down to it. Worked, walked and then informed this friend, who like me, comes here on official business. Since the restraunt is shut, we sat in his room for a couple of hours talking about politics, religion, being Sikh ( his version being very different from mine, as I don’t follow anything and he’s a Jato da Munda from Punjab) , Kashmir etc as the sun came down. I excused myself and walked towards my lover. Now, I have two. One is my car and like I’m apparently the love of Shets life, the Dal Lake has to be the love of mine.

Have you ever kept a long distance lover? Someone you meet once in a year and when you do the sight of the person, gives you goosebumps, your heart pounds in your chest, your eyes well up and you’re so overwhelmed with emotion you’re ecstatic and devastated at the same time. Those days are part of my history but it’s the way I feel each time I approach the Dal after a long haul. Unlike most lovers, though, it’s great at handling my tears and it does comfort me in my weakest moments.

Like I said, I’ve replaced men with technology. I forgot to mention what else.

Chakwali- the last village near the LOC

A young girl, in Chakwali, Gurez or Chak-I-Bahaar, which was it’s original name.

The Shina speaking Dard couple, in front of their house in Chakwali, the last village of the Tulail Valley, just a few kms away from the LOC.

When you cross the check points from Bandipora, towards Dawar, don’t forget to mention that you are there to visit Gurez Valley and not just Dawar, otherwise access will be denied. Though, special permissions are no longer required to travel to Gurez, the checkpoints are very much there and the Army and JKP are keeping a close watch. The road to this remote village is horrible, filled with back breaking potholes and the old fashioned speed breakers, without any markings on them and which are big enough, to ruin your car’s suspension. Between one village and another, truly there isn’t much difference, therefore, don’t take everyone’s advice who says they visited this place and you must too. I was there to find out about the state of affairs of the local school. The short interview will be uploaded on this post later. Until then take my word, this is the land of the Dards, the last village of the Tulail Valley, where there is extreme poverty, which hardly has any visitors and is closed for the majority of the year, due to the terrible climatic conditions.

A few quick answers before my next update-

What are the permissions required? None.

What is the procedure? Carry your identification and passport size photos (just in case).

Is it safe to travel alone? I wouldn’t recommend it, at all. No one will do anything to you, but you can get stuck due to climatic conditions or just a breaking down of your vehicle. Transportation is not easily available and neither are basic amenities. Your phones will not work, either.  There are way too many checkpoints and to get access alone, to these places by yourself will be very hard. A lot of people lie about visiting Chakwali, as most of the villages on the way, look very similar. So don’t tread there by yourself, believing any random person.

Is it a safe place to travel? Of course, it’s safe and gorgeous. Roads are some of the worst one’s I’ve driven on. But Bandipora isn’t safe right, now. There was an encounter going on when I was coming back to Srinagar. Plus, grapevine has it, shit is going to hit the ceiling very soon. There may be months of curfews so keep it off your travel list, this year.



It was a tedious, trying, tiring trip. But so worth the effort. There is a lot of misinformation that gets spread about traveling to this part of Kashmir because who the hell, is going to to go there and check, right? But I will try to be as honest as possible.

Let’s start from the beginning, first. Having covered the Mughal Road (which I will share in a later post), I spent a night in Srinagar and the next day I was on the way to Dawar. Driving as much as I do, does get exhausting but thankfully this time around, I was with a local, who couldn’t drive but was fabulous company. Anyone who tells you it’s safe or pleasant to travel to Gurez by yourself, whether you are a man or woman is making stuff up. I don’t take other people’s word for anything. Only once I had travelled to Kashmir by road a number of times with a maid, a cook, an assistant and my cousins did I start driving down by myself and even now, in December/ January I think a million times before doing so. Kashmir, IS A CONFLICT ZONE! Please, don’t listen to a sales pitch right now and think it’s all hunky dory.

Having warned you, let me also tell you, Kashmiri’s are lovely as are the Dard’s , the Shina speaking tribe of Gurez. They are warm and hospitable and they make great company. To reach this lovely, secluded area, you will have to first go to Bandipora, which is a couple of hours and a little more than 60 kms away from Srinagar. This is the dodgy area. The encounters and search operations in Bandipora, make it difficult for people to travel to Tulail.

Beyond this point, it’s totally militarised. There are multiple check points, where I hear people are turned back from, especially foreign nationals. In the past, I was turned back, but this time around, from the Army, to the JKP to the BSF, all seemed very friendly. Honestly, I was shocked at how, polite they were. Since, I was driving, I thought I would be asked to get off the car at the check points but they just asked my companion to take my ids with him, while they chatted (checked on me) with me.

Is it safe? Well, on the way back, in Bandipora, there was an encounter going on due to which they were redirecting the traffic. It’s safer to be a tourist in Kashmir, than to be a local!

Great Lakes trek

Kashmir Great Lakes

I returned from paradise, in a transient state-neither here, nor there both, SB and SC confused about how to behave. SC who is rarely allowed to come out, has been raging to go for a while, throwing a fit inside SB’s perfectly crafted heaven (or hell, where she is most definitely going). SB who has been coaxing and pleading with her, to calm the hell down, ‘wait till we reach Kashmir, then it’s your turn’ had managed to keep a lid on the little one, with those words.

After the enormously difficult trip from Delhi to Srinagar, I had my doubts SC would be seeing the light of day. Uniformed men scare the crap out her, they remind her of a time when the Mum was unwell and the cops would come to the house at night, because the neighbours would complain about the ruckus she was creating; of domestic violence and of course of bribery. SB on the other hand sees them and is reminded of her being harassed for trying to save a man’s life, of her calf being felt up, of trying to be used as a human shield and of course of being threatened not once but multiple times. This one goes mental when she encounters them, staring at them right in the eye and speaking in a tone that makes most of them mistake her dislike for an arrogance, that can only come out of being connected in this country.

But once I reached Sonmarg, all the walls just came crashing down. The right tone of voice, the wind blowing through her hair and some yummies for her tummy, is all it takes for SC to be happy. And of course being pampered silly, never really harmed anyone. From Sonmarg as she walked with her companions to Tabletop, those ten kilometres were the hardest. No one tells you how far these places are, to be fair they assume it would as easy for you to trek, as it is for them, who have been walking on those terrains, forever. The number of Indian tourists who were complaining about how far the lakes were, should have changed our mind but it didn’t.

By the time, we reached Tabletop, after a few hours of walking and the boys set up the tent, SB had disappeared into thin air. Not a whimper, even, I shit you not, there was complete silence. As the kids gathered around the tent, to peep in and look at what we were upto, SC, just lapped up all the attention and had the time of her life. Tabletop is not a camping site, it’s a midpoint to Nichnai pass, where one can stop for a quick bite or a hot cup of chai. As we had started late and it was about to rain, on the first day we camped, here. Due to my clumsiness and propensity to get burnt, I was banned from touching the cylinder. So I switched on my Sare gama mini as my companions, prepared our meal. One by one, women and kids came asking for medicines. Next time, I better carry some.

The next day, we began early. By 7.30, we were all packed and ready to go not realising what we were up for. If you have been trekking in Ladakh or Himachal, this is a fairly easy trek for you. Even if you play a lot of sports or are fairly physically fit, you will enjoy this but if you are Moi, who falls sick on high altitudes and waddles like a duck, wow, this is going to be so bloody taxing on you! First, there was a steep uphill climb, then a walk through the forest which was so beautiful, with Silver Birch trees everywhere and then there were the dreaded rocks as we made our way upstream along the bank of the river. A group of Kashmiri men, waited for me to make my way, through them, while they waited patiently.

Nichnai Pass

When we reached the Nichnai camp site it was around eleven thirty in the morning. We hung around for a bit and decided to keep walking towards the Vishansar camp site. It just grew harder and harder. On the trek to Gangabal, many moons ago, I had to be given CPR, I was hoping to not land up in a similar situation. Whilst, I was thinking it was hard only for me, I saw more Indian tourists returning without making it to their destination and even some foreigners getting sick. Music surprisingly didn’t help the pain that I started getting in my ear. That’s when I remembered a chant I was taught in a Sufi class, ‘ Allah Hu, Allah Haq’. Now, before you begin to give it a religious connotation, just recite it once and you will realise it is very similar to any breathing exercise, that is taught in a yoga class. So, that’s what I did. Sipped slowly on water and went ‘Allah Hu- Exhale’, ‘Allah Haq-Inhale’, as we crossed through the mountainous terrain, through a river and as we walked through the rain. Up until where the uphill climb for the Nichnai pass began and ‘Uncle’ the horse rider, left the luggage at the pass and came down to get me. We saved more than an hour like that, he said and me from collapsing, I thought.

At the Nichnai pass too, there is a small makeshift cafe, where you can get the usual, eggs, tea and maggi. Of course at that altitude, things become five times the price but the respite that you get from the tiny little, cup of tea, is well worth it. Word of advice, if you ask any Kashmiri how far your destination is on this trek, they will all tell you it is just around the corner, which it is not! According to my Fitbit, on the second day, we walked more than 25 kms from Tabletop to Vishansar camp. What took me the entire day, as I waddle and bounce, would take you about eight hours or even less.

The Great Lakes Trek, Kashmir

On the third day, we rested the entire morning, and then walked upto to Vishansar and Krishansar lake in the afternoon. Took shelter under a rock as it rained, profusely and then made some pictures of the lakes, which to my eyes, looked too similar to Gangabal. On the fourth day, we again began our descent towards Tabletop instead of Nichnai camp, as aesthetically it just didn’t please my eyes-there were just tents of various shapes and sizes, lined around and the sound of chatter, everywhere. Due to a lack of water and the number of shepherd’s homes, Tabletop is unpopular with the tourists, making it perfect for anyone who has aversion to crowds.

On the fifth day we came back to Sonmarg and SB started to slowly show up, while SC has been slowly disappearing. Essentially this trek starts from Sonmarg and ends at Naranag, covering all the major lakes – Vishansar, Krishansar, Gadsar, Satsar and then Gangaba. But since one has already visited Gangabal earlier and was short on time, could only manage these, for now.

Just Another Friday

Yasin Malik arrested

Yasin Malik arrested from his residence in Maisuma

Kashmir through my eyes

Waiting for the arrest in Maisuma

Friday protests in Batmaloo

A Friday in Batmaloo

Burhan Wani protests

Strike in Srinagar

Graffiti in Batmaloo

Kashmir through my eyes

Waiting in Batmaloo on a quiet Friday afternoon

Solo Dates in Kashmir

Before I post anything from my trip…the Valley clad in snow, the conflict or the cold..I want to dedicate the next few solo dates to Kashmir. 

Yesterday, as I walked around taking pictures of the snow, I bumped into one of the journalists working for Star. He wanted a bite about the cold…I urged more tourists to visit. As I tuned into take my staple diet of Fb, last evening, a Kashmiri writer’s post, gave an account of the harassment she faced while strolling through Srinagar. A decade of wandering around the city in the worst circumstances, plus being here at the same time at the same spot, with the security forces around, I am baffled by it! I am sure there are a few rotten apples every where, it’s unfortunate when someone encounters them.

There are a number of things I dislike about Srinagar . Personally, I like cities which are melting pots of various cultures, with a diversity of religious practices,  clothing and thought. Though, I would love to live in Kashmir, I would hate to bring up my kids, here. Plus, I don’t know how to fit in, which is a prerequisite to surviving,  two- three tier cities and small towns in India. But the good outweighs the bad. As a woman, I very rarely feel unsafe here…around the security forces, yes, (a number of times, I have faced their brunt) around a local kashmiri man, nope. Barring, a few instances last year, in a very  specific area, where the boys were heckling, I’ve never been harassed. 

I wish I could give an unbiased, account of my travels. But we all suffer our prejudices; some of us are just honest enough to claim them. I don’t wear tags, therefore I don’t need to see the world through feminist eyes. 

So these solo dates are dedicated to my decade in Kashmir. A place I have no connect to but which feels like home. To all those who made an outsider, feel like an insider … thank you.

52nd Day-Normalcy between pellet injuries and kani jungs.




An ambulance makes its way through the kani jung.


Clashes in Batamaloo

Clashes in Batamaloo


Boys against the force

Boys against the force


52nd day- Clashes in Batamaloo

52nd day- Clashes in Batamaloo


One of the most volatile localities in Srinagar.


‘Behanji aap me dimaag nahin he. Jao yahaan se.’- I get yelled at


Mr T came over this morning. This was his first visit, so over a cup of tea we discussed the ‘haalat‘ and how stubborn I am to be stepping out by myself. ‘ Where can I take you, today?’ he asked. ‘SMHS’, I replied. So off we went in an auto to the hospital, where I was threatened on my last visit. I didn’t want to go there alone, to be honest-so I was glad for the company. We took the back entrance, to avoid any unnecessary attention. Before we could enter the building, I heard a familiar voice, ‘Kesi hain aap?’. There stood the lady who forbade me to enter the wards, on my last visit. With her arm stretched out, she gave me the sweetest smile. I shook her hand hoping we wouldn’t be stopped again. It was my lucky day.

Considering that there are talks of replacing the pellet gun, it’s shocking that even now fifty-one days later, the situation at SMHS, is still grim. The papers claim that there are a fresh round of pellet injuries and more than thirty people have been hit by the pellet in their eyes. We enter the ophthalmology ward and from little children to young boys can be seen wearing those dreadful black glasses, masking their eye injuries. I keep my head bowed, my eyes to the floor and my head covered. T does the talking. When they ask him where I’m from in Kashmiri, he just replies ‘Times Of India’. They leave me alone but continue to question him. For about ten minutes we move from bed to bed as quickly as we can, barely interacting with the subjects and leave.

Injured children and injured adults.

Injured children and injured adults.


A child tries to sleep through his pellet injury.

A child tries to sleep through his pellet injury.

I come back to the hotel and he leaves, saying he will call if anything happens. A little while later, I go back to SMHS. This time to see what is happening on the volunteer front. By the time I reach it’s lunch time and all the organisations that had been there over a month ago, are still there providing-food, medicines and water . I speak to a few people who say, it’s still quite terrible. A lot more people have been admitted in the past week and everyday it seems someone passes away.

On the way back, I’m dropped off by a very friendly twenty four year old auto driver, from Safa Kadal. ‘The CRPF uses us as human shields in our area. I leave the house early in the morning because I’m tired of being confined. You all keep saying that the Hurriyat pays these boys to stir trouble. Do you know it’s the opposition parties that pay their people money to stir trouble? They all just want money and power. The only person who gets into trouble is the sixteen-year old boy, who doesn’t belong to any party. The ones who are affiliated  even if they are caught are set free in just a few days . We have a jail, we have our own law and yet the boys are sent to Tihar. Punish us if we are guilty but first at least file a case and prove that a person is, don’t just keep him in lockup for years! ‘

After his passionate monologue, all I can say is ‘may God make your tomorrow better than your yesterday.’ Get dropped and I’m informed by my people that there’s trouble in Batamaloo. As soon as I reach there, I find Mr T and a few other members of the fraternity. T is taken aback. ‘ How did you get to know’, he asks. ‘I have my sources, T’, I reply grinning sheepishly. There are stones on the street but no boys and no JKP around. Within ten minutes they start trickling in. As soon as I start taking pictures they ask, ‘Apne boyfriend ko dikhaee gee?’ In no other part of Srinagar, has any stone pelter done this but these guys love me. ‘Ye dekho madam, aap kehti he bacche he. Suno inki bate,’ the armed personnel are pissed. T is embarrassed by their behaviour, ‘you stay back’.

Maybe I am too close or they are way too agitated but for the first time in nine years the stones touch my body. I suffer absolutely no injury, one fall on my foot…the other hits my leg, gently and one whisks past me, twenty inches away from the head. The only reason it bothers me is because I can’t figure out if it is accidental or intentional. One of them eventually yells out ‘Behenji aap me dimaag nahin he. Jao yahaan se.’ Since T has left, the SHO is yelling and so are they, I decide to split.


51st Day-Rain, Rain Go Away.


51st Day Of Unrest In The Valley

51 days after Burhan Wani was killed.

51 days after Burhan Wani was killed.


Boulevard Road On The 51st Day Of Unrest In The Valley

Boulevard Road On The 51st Day Of Unrest In The Valley

On a rainy day, through a quiet city a woman in red walks around with a bag on her back, occasionally closing her eyes to feel the rain drops on her face. She opens them just as quickly because her heart pounds in her chest. As she does this continually, for a few minutes she feels her self float above to get a bird’s-eye view of the poetic scene. ‘If only it weren’t this tragic!’, she thinks to herself as she meanders through the familiar terrain.

Madam, bade dino baad aee he!’, says the security personnel. I’m a bit taken aback but it is their job to notice people like me. I chit-chat with them as I take shelter from the rain. ‘We were sent to Amarnath for a little bit but I’ve just been here ever since.’ ‘Do you think the situation will change around Eid?’, I ask him. ‘Never know with these people…do you know they don’t think of themselves as Indians?’ He’s aghast. ‘I know they don’t!’ That’s my exit. ‘You can’t force them to’, I say as I walk away. A few years ago, I wouldn’t be caught dead chatting with an uniformed man. A few years ago, I wasn’t disrespected by random strangers as I walked around, Srinagar either. In a volatile situation like this-tact is of prime importance and not being a prisoner of your own opinions, is another.

I make my way to the ex assistant’s house where I’m covered in a blanket and fed by his family. People keep walking in and out. There are chickens, kittens and little children in the background. ‘You shouldn’t have come to Kashmir. We worry about your safety. Haalat pehle jese nahin he. Rising Kashmir ki reporter se bhi badtameeze ki he.‘ They show me an article which states that a female reporter was verbally assaulted by the security personnel. I try to change the topic. ‘If the shutdown continues, how will people survive?’ I ask them. ‘ In Kashmir we are always prepared. We keep enough ration in our houses and everybody helps each other out.’ replies my ex assistant’s father. ‘This time around they have to resolve the issue…too many people have been killed. ‘ ‘ Many were killed earlier too and yet it returned towards partial normalcy.’ I reply. ‘ This time it won’t! Go to any area, speak to anyone we all want the same thing.’

An auto drops me in front of the hotel. I cross the road to speak to some fruit vendors. As I do so, my friend Ocean calls. While I chat with him I take a shot of a passerby. The minute I finish my conversation, I am face to face with a cop. ‘Are you a tourist?’ asks the Jk police man politely. ‘No’, I reply. ‘ Then what are you trying to do?’ ‘Nothing,’ I reply. A few customary questions later, I have a question of my own for him. ‘ Sir, why the questioning? There is no curfew today.’ ‘ First we need to know where you’re from. If you’re a local-which you are not, which organisation do you belong to? For all we know you could be from the Millat. If you’re an outsider we need to ensure your safety and inform you to not trust anyone. These days you don’t get to know who is who,’ he replies.

51 days later, there's partial normalcy in the Valley.

51 days later, there’s partial normalcy in the Valley.

The conversation continues and I am given an insight into the lives of the Jk Police. He shows me an identity card with his photograph on it but it states that he works in a pharmacy. ‘This is for our safety…when we return to our districts we pretend to be someone else. Do you know if I walked into a local hospital, the doctors  will not treat me because I am from JKP? We are sitting over here to protect the fruit vendors, so that no one harasses them. But your people can also write that we don’t allow them to work or that we take money from them. ‘ ‘Why the resentment towards the media?’ I ask. ‘Your profession demands that you should be impartial and fair. Show both sides equally but you all don’t do that. Especially, the Kashmiri press always wants to portray us as the bad guys, even when we are trying to help they misconstrue entire episodes. You know all five fingers are not the same. Some uniformed man could be rude to you that doesn’t mean that you will generalise and think we are all the same. Carry on with your work.’ Though, he’s polite and we’ll spoken he seems a bit weary of me. He takes my number and I give it to him knowing not doing so will just arouse his suspicion.

The common man who tries to survive through it all.

The common man who tries to survive through it all.

 The fruit vendors sit at the crossing outside my hotel window. I see them bustling with energy despite the present circumstance. One agrees to chat with me. ‘For the past few days we have resumed work. We leave our houses at 5.30 in the morning, so that we don’t get into any trouble. The only people who don’t want azaadi are the 5% of the rich, who have houses outside Kashmir. The rest 95% want freedom!’ he states.

A couple of hours later, I receive a message from the cop, asking if I need any help. ‘No thank you,’ I reply politely. My natural instincts forbid me to trust, in haste.



Saturday the 16th-8th Day Of Curfew In Srinagar

Protests in Kashmir after Burhan Wani killing.

                 Graffiti in Kashmir after Burhan Wani killing.

I wake up to the sound of vehicles. Try to make a call but I’m completely disconnected from the world. Grab a quick breakfast… try to check out the news but the cable is down. Try to find the newspaper but they have been seized so I just start walking towards Sri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital- the hospital which has received the maximum victims of pellet injuries, since the killing of Burhaan Wani, the twenty-two year old Hizbul Mujahideen commander,  a week earlier. The funeral that was attended by two lakh people spearheaded the protests of 2016 in Kashmir, with many taking to the streets to stone pelt.  The pellet gun which was used as a non lethal weapon to combat the crowd has backfired on us. Around a hundred young boys have suffered injuries to the eye. An unidentified man has died of pellet injuries to his skull on the 9th of July at SMHS and on July 10th Altaf Ahmed from Rajpoora passed away due to pellet injuries to the chest at the same facilities. Kashmir is burning, yet again!

The curfew is a bit relaxed, a few vehicles are seen on the road. A kilometer later, I find an auto. I’m dropped with instructions on where he can be relocated.

I hope the things I mention next aren’t seen as a reflection on Kashmiris but as a reflection of the circumstance in which they find themselves.

As soon as I walk in through the gate of SMHS, I know I’m in trouble. The people of Kashmir have gathered to help their own. There are volunteers running helter skelter, assisting the wounded. The camera and the fact that I’m alone attracts everyone’s attention. Suddenly I’m surrounded by, I can’t even recall how many men. I’m in the middle of a mob and I am their enemy. ‘Vapis jao. Andar nahin jane denge. Humse kuch puchte ho, wahan par kat kat kar kuch aur dikhate ho.’ They don’t want me to enter and I tell them I won’t till they don’t permit me to. But I will stand in a corner quietly, by myself. They leave me to my own devices for a few minutes. Then a man from the Bemina Youth Welfare Committee, strikes up a conversation with me.  ‘Where am I from? What do I want? Why does the media misquote us? What do I want to portray? Have I ever interviewed  the Pandit migrant? Yes! Then why not show the plight of the Kashmiri Muslim migrant?’

By this time I’m sitting on a chair in front of this man and I lose my marbles. His tone and manner, the people around me every thing makes me feel cornered. The truth is – I’m terrified and thankfully I’m most aggressive when I’m most afraid. ‘You’re not the first man who has tried to intimidate me. Please don’t talk to me about Hindus and Muslims. The first time I came here a man such as yourself called me a kafir. In fact, ten percent of the people I meet over here are like you. But I return every year for the ninety who are not like you. The ones who are kind, the ones who invite me into their houses when I am in trouble. If I felt scared I wouldn’t be walking around alone. If you treat people such as myself as enemies, you’re going to defeat the purpose. You have to engage with us.’

I don’t know if it’s the pressure from colleagues in the adjoining tent ( The  Umeed-e-Kashmir), which has been providing water to the attendants of the injured) who are incredibly kind,  my tone or what I now feel is my over sensitivity  but he quickly changes his tune. ‘I was trying to help you and you got angry. I just wanted to understand what you do and help you in any way possible. Go in through the door without stopping and nobody will say anything to you. Aap ne kuch khayaa nahin’, he says as I hand back the cup of tea and biscuits which have been given to me by his colleagues.  ‘Aap jaanti nahin hum Kashmiri khilaa pilaa ke marte he,’ he says grinning sheepishly. ‘Haan Ghushtaba Hospitality kehte he usko.‘ ‘Khaana kha ke jayeega, humare saath,” he says as I wave him goodbye.

By the time I enter, I’ve realised that I should only speak to the women. I ask a few where to go. I reach ward number eight, where some of the patients are recovering. There’s a long line in front of the ward. ‘I ask a woman if I can enter. ‘No we are asking you nicely not to. Please go away from here. Kal media valo ko maad pari he.’ ‘No problem, I will just sit in a corner and not say anything to anyone.’ A man approaches me. ‘Idhar aaiye. Did you not read what is written over here?’, he says pointing to the graffiti  on the wall. ‘Damn my camera bag!’ I think to myself. ‘Endian media and dogs not allowed,’ I read out aloud. ‘No problem. I will not enter. Can I sit over here?’ ‘Sit but don’t approach anyone,’ says the man who is a volunteer and has been recently released from custody (he’s boastfully announced this to me).

A warning, outside the wards.

A warning outside the wards.


I don’t need to. People start approaching me. I’m sitting alone on the floor of a hospital, in silent protest. A number of people tell me how the Indian media, edits and misconstructs their statements, that’s why they are weary of me. A young boy from Tral who is recovering from an eye injury and has come for a follow-up, tells me that ‘ iss time azaadi le kar rahenge.’ Another man tells me that I am a few days late. My predecessors (Zee news) have done the damage. I can’t comment, I’ve never watched the channel. All kinds of people approach me, many gentle, many offensive. A man offers to take me inside the ward without my camera. I readily walk in.

It’s sad and scary. Hospital beds lined with boys in their late teens and early twenties, bandages tied to their eyes, some disabled for life. I am escorted out by my companion. Outside the gate a few people strike a conversation. It again becomes a large group. An elderly man comes and disperses everyone who has gathered around me. ‘Mere jigar, agar kuch dikhana he to dikhao ke log kese ek doosre ki madad karte he. Government kuch nahin kar rahee humare leyee, ‘ he says to me as I walk away.

A kilometer later, I start feeling  rather uneasy. I’m being tailed. A Maruti with four men in it is following me. I stop. They stop. I wait they wait. I run to the opposite side and wait. A few minutes pass by. They wait and then leave. I cross the road again, afraid they’ll take a U-turn. I come across two elderly gentlemen sitting by the side of the road. I ask their permission to sit with them. ‘Paanch minute kyaa, pandra minute betho’. As we chat about the situation, a scooter with two boys on it crosses by. They keep staring at me. Again and again and again, they go in circles. ‘I’m just being rather paranoid,’ I think to myself. I turn around to ask the Uncles, if it’s unusual. ‘There are all sorts of people in hospital. Don’t feel afraid, just hit them. Jo dar gayaa voh mar gayaa. If you need to call up someone come to my house and use the landline.’ I politely decline. I wait around for what seems like forever. The boys disappear. I hate walking on the streets of a curfewed city, by myself, catching more attention than is necessary.

I find my auto guy who finds it shocking that I haven’t managed to get anyone on record. I beg him to take me to SKIMS in Soura. He agrees under the condition that I will return with him during prayer time. We cross our first check point. The security forces leave us but ask us to drop a man and his pregnant wife close to our destination. There are many check points on the way but we manage to pass through the deserted city. I breeze in out of SKIMS, with the voice records of a few injured boys and their relatives.

I’m still apprehensive about going back to the hotel. I walk around Lal Chowk and am repeatedly asked by the security forces to find company and stop gallivanting alone. ‘Galliyon mein mat chalo Madam, yeh log kuch bhi kar sakte hein.’ ‘Mujhe kucch nahin karenge sir,’ I say hoping  what I believe is true.

Collecting Diamonds

The sky seems sad and it’s dreary today. The rain slowly cuts through the cold and everyone seems to be rejoicing as the sheen, the snow starts to fall. I feel awfully lonely in the small deserted house that stands on two canals of land -as the occupants have been driven away by the cold. Even the mice in the attic seem to have jumped ship…the sound of rain has quitened them down. I long for the comfort of familiarity and head towards the Dal. My solitude gets crowded by words that hang in the air.

Yesterday- “What are you doing here?”, asks my, let’s call her my Jawahar Nagar friend (J.N.F), as we eat enormous portions of food at Books and Bricks, a newly opened cafe in Srinagar.  She’s continually perplexed by my winter visits. Collecting diamonds, I think to myself. “I’m doing what Mina was doing!” “Who?”, she questions. Her reaction makes me realize  I hear parts of local lore, only a certain class in Kashmir is privy to. I was told this by my assistant who heard it from his father.

“So according to local lore, there was once a European traveller who fell in love with Kashmir. I don’t know how but they say he came and never went back. He would sit at a particular spot, throwing stones into the Dal and would feel mighty pleased looking at the water droplets that gleamed on the Pamposh flower. To him they looked like diamonds. Apparently, when his family would ask him what he was doing in Kashmir, he would say, ‘I’m collecting diamonds!’. He eventually died in the Valley and somewhere in Srinagar, lies his grave. So, what I’m doing here is as fruitful as what Mina was doing”, I replied.

“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve really wanted to get married!”, says my 33 year old, single, incredibly independent, lawyer friend. She’s very distracted by the boy in glasses who sits behind me, reading. “I want my husband to be tall and I really like guys who wear specs!”. “Don’t your parents want you to get married?”, she inquires. Religion, Politics and Marriage, in that order seem to be the hot topics of discussion in Kashmir. “My Mom does but my Dad is like Amitabh’s character from Piku. My entire life, I haven’t been questioned about my wear abouts or what time I was coming home but ever since the itna chunga munda, my ex has started seeing someone my Dad is up each night, waiting for his daughter to come home, so worried she might fall in love and elope with someone. He’s constantly telling me how bad boys are, how I’m too strong willed to adjust with a man and how terrible marriage is. Basically, Bhaskor Banerjee!”  She finds it amusing and liberating… I roll my eyes. “Not that it makes me a difference because I just don’t want to!”. As I utter these words, I think of the row on New Year’s Eve.

NEW YEAR’S EVE- For the past, I don’t even recall how many years now, I’ve spent this night…sleeping. But to get out of my self inflicted solitary confinement this New Year’s Eve, I went out for a quiet dinner with my landlady and her son to Caffea Arabica at The Broadway. Though, the most popular coffee shop in Srinagar was unusually unpeopled, it was hardly a quiet and serene environment. Popular Bollywood songs, like “Jumme ki Raat he” blared from the vicinity. Apparently, a private party had been hosted by someone inside the hotel. A group of women giggled their way into the Cafe and asked one of the waiters to take a picture, after which they quickly made their way towards the music. We finished, our slightly cold but scrumptious meal and I excused myself to go the washroom. I stood outside for a while, waiting for the occupant to exit…in a while two, slightly tipsy women stumbled out of the loo. As soon as I stepped in, the very tempting, seductive smell of cigarette smoke enveloped me. Though, I’ve quit…I’ve yet to reach a point where I’m indifferent towards it. A candle stood burning at the window sill…’Asiya Andrabi, thinks that New Year celebrations are UnIslamic…The Millat would have a field day here. The people in Delhi who are constantly talking about the repressed state of Muslim women would be pleasantly surprised, too’, I thought to myself as I came out. Most women from privileged backgrounds in Kashmir are alot like my girlfriends/sisters in Delhi- actually no, the Kashmiris are better educated and are rarely dependent on their spouses. But there is an underlying hypocrisy about Kashmiri society, probably due to the conflict. The people of the Vale operate from behind a Veil.

Anyhow, I come home before midnight so that I can chat with the boy who waits rather impatiently, now. Since it is the beginning of a New Year, he assumes that I would be ready…enough time has passed. But it’s difficult to drill any sense into my head…I’m so damn adamant. He looses his cool as the clock strikes 12…I start 2016 saying-‘The only time we really want something is when we can’t have it.’

The Girl In Dirty Shoes

The other day I woke up startled at some Godforsaken hour in Srinagar. The white light from the compact fluorescent lamp woke me up from my slumber or maybe it was the floods. The sound of grown men howling in hotel corridors, people pleading for food and water or just yelling out to be rescued…for the first being alone in Kashmir scared the living day lights out of me.

I fumbled out of bed and went towards the mirror. This had become a habit since I’d started wearing lenses. Through my half blind, -8 eyes I peered at myself. The skin had become two shades darker and the hair was as unruly as ever. I smiled sardonically. I was miserably failing to meet the boyish standard of beauty- untamable  hair, dark skin, crooked nose. The events of the past year had shattered my self image, claimed many. They were now known as ‘many’. I no longer addressed people as friends or family- In my head everyone was now neatly labelled as acquaintances, people I knew and people I was related to.

I put on my lenses and the image in the mirror was no longer a blurred outline of a person but an actual reflection.Over the years I had been described as fragile, mad, eccentric, bitchy, egoistic, child, woman…hell, once a poem was written on my contradictory qualities. Nothing ever seemed like a perfect fit.

In the corner of my room were a pair of shoes that had gotten dirty while working in Bemina. That night, when I saw those shoes- for the first time I truly saw myself. ‘Some women are smart, some are beautiful. Some please your friends others please your family. I would always be just the girl in the dirty shoes…going everywhere she shouldn’t… doing everything you wouldn’t!’.

From The Srinagar Airport On The Way Back To New Delhi.