Ludhiana

Enroute
When someone feels just like Ma. (Ma-si)

When you’re THE blackest sheep of the family, meeting the members at times feels like a colonoscopy. But sometimes, Hallelujah! it’s like a much needed balm ( did you just imagine something else? ) Especially, when that member fits perfectly in your arms, just like your mum. Sorry, I’m rather superstitious these days, so you can’t see her pretty face, in the picture above.

Between my first shot and second, I finally finished Indra Nooyi’s autobiography that a friend had gifted me ( to propel me forward) and was pondering on strong female role models in the family, who must have struggled with balancing work and family, harsh criticism and making harsh decisions and the two people who came to mind were: my masi and my youngest mami. Tough women, that life has flung all kinds of adversities at and they have risen to the occasion and steered things in their favour. I was thinking of them and the next day, almost on cue, one got a message from my aunt, to attend a function, in Ludhiana.

I wanted the father to attend the 75th anniversary, so that he could get a much deserved break, from his somewhat monotonous existence. But he insisted I should shed my anti social ways and ‘go and meet your masi, who is very fond of you!’ Incase you’re attributing her fondness to any quality I possess, I have my doubts. I’m just reaping the benefit of being my mum’s daughter. Though, he was really pissed off about me traveling by myself. This is a new thing (totally understandable, though) that one is having a hard time adjusting to. I don’t know whether it’s due to how lost one can be, sometimes or because I’m the only one left, that he just doesn’t want me to go anywhere unaccompanied. And I loveeeee company, especially when I’m driving. Not!!!!

After much coaxing- Me, music and melancholy, took off at a reasonable hour. Along the way, melancholy paused to weep as Rabbi Shergil sang, tere bin sano soneya, koi aur nahi labana and then music and I bid her goodbye. The number of cameras on the way, pissed the crap out of me. That highway, requires a minimum speed limit of 110 but I guess that’s debatable. The car and I seem to have aged in the past two years, though. As the wrinkles set in and one grays, one seems to have less control over not just the mind but also the bladder. So, a lot more pee and tea breaks, along the way.

At a gas station, fifty kilometres from Ludhiana, much to the amusement of the employees, one quickly dolled up. After a little meandering through the city, one found the Gurudwara. What a lovely function, it was! Though, one claims that marriage is highly overrated, one does tend to appreciate the ones, that survive in sickness and in health…for richer or poorer. Seventy five years of togetherness, four generations under one roof, warmth and love filled the air. To one’s utter disbelief, one was made to feel so welcome by the entire family but most of all one was so happy that the aunt was thrilled to see me. One basked in the warmth of kinship (as one chatted with the cousins) after so long that a part of me really wanted to stay back but work called.

Life is all about the balance, I guess. Some people will drag you down and others will lift you up. But much can be learnt from the ones who struggle and thrive. The rest should just be avoided, for sanity’s sake.

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 outdoors..so 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.

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!

14 th September- 40 days later in Soura

A woman showing the press the wounds the JKP inflicted on her, while she was returning from the medical institute.

The women of Soura, are as passionate as the boys about ‘azadi’

An older woman narrates the happenings of the past month.

A spokeswoman from the locality tells me, ‘mein protest mein kabhi nahin jaati, interview deti hu, lekin jati nahin hu.’

A young boy who became handicapped in 2018, after pellets hit his skull.

They thought I was an agent of the GOI. The people of the locality, were suspicious of me, on Friday- the day of the Jumma Namaz but on Saturday it was a whole different story. The day before, they saw many local photojournalists and assumed I was with one of them. For the first time, I saw them, the female photojournalists of the Valley. Two of them, accompanied by a male photographer and a photojournalist from some part of India, pretending to be Kashmiri. When I was introduced to her, I did tell her it was obvious she wasn’t from there but she totally denied it!

These tactics make it hard for people to trust someone who is there all alone. My gaffer had promised to only drop and pick me up, from Soura. ‘Mein nahin ja sakta, they will pick me up and send me to some jail, in another part of India! I hope you understand?’ Of course I did. Hummare peeche koi rone wallah nahin he, other people have families that would be devastated. With hardly any trasportation running in this part of town, with no mobile connectivity and with no one in my family knowing that I was entering this place, I was by myself, shitting bricks in my pants, in a locality where neither the JKP nor the Army could enter, so I did what I do best, just say it like it is. ‘ I am not Kashmiri and do not mistake me for being Muslim, just because of my name. I don’t want you to feel I entered your houses, by telling you all a lie!’ The truth mostly works like a charm in Kashmir, trying lying to them and you are jacked, for sure. I am glad I did because the female photojournalists went around announcing to all and sundry that I wasn’t with them and I wasn’t Kashmiri, which ultimately lead to a sort of friendly interrogation by the locals- my ids were checked, they wanted to see my father’s photograph on my phone to make sure my Aadhar card was genuine, I was constantly accompanied by these two adorable girls, who took me all around but I had a gnawing suspicion that they had been asked to keep an eye on the stranger.

Whatever, it was, I told the truth, so I hung around practically the whole day. A boy had been caught, by the JKP, the previous day, from the protest . This was while I was interviewing someone in another corner of the locality, on Friday. Apparently, his sister went to the police station to check on him and she too was beaten up and had been detained. To protest against that, the women went to the Soura Medical Institute on the 14th. I was there while, they stopped people and told them their woes. Ultimately, three army men came to beat them up as I hurriedly went, hid my camera and sat in the corner with the patients. If any armed personnel would have seen me entering or exiting Soura, my cameras or chips would have been ceased. The girls ran back and some got hurt.

After twenty minutes, I snuck back into the locality. I interviewed people, hung around in the park and was invited over for lunch by plenty of women, which I politely declined. This was the Kashmir, I was used to, these were the people I was used to ( kind and hospitable) not the one’s who had been giving me dirty looks on the roads since the abrogation. Ultimately I went for tea, with the local girl who had chosen to accompany me. Her family was really hospitable and kind, feeding me lots, while they warned her to be careful about what she tells me.

I left a little later, than the time assigned by my gaffer. The girls still by my side, ‘Didi we want to make sure, you are safe!’ ( or what they didn’t say- we want to know who brought you here). People hung around in front of their shops, while I walked past, the shutters down, chatting about the terrible events of the day. ‘Now they will beat up our women, too!’ they discussed. There seemed to be more barricades by the end of the same day and a lot more boys hung around at the unofficial posts, protecting their locality and their women!

13.9.19- Soura

Protest in Soura, Kashmir on the 13th of September against the Abrogation of article 370.

The life of Kashmiris, ever since the government abrogated the article

‘We will get caught and booked, just because we live in Soura. It doesn’t matter whether we do something or not!’- Protestor at the rally

Women and the children come out to protest, in this locality.

The womenfolk gather around to check out the tear gas shells, which are being shown to me.

Silent observers of the Kashmir Clampdown.

‘We need to protect our locality, as the armed forces can hurt our women and children, if they enter this space!’- Boy, posing in front of the barricade created to keep the Army/JKP out

While I was shooting the barricade, pellets were fired at the protestors (stone pelters). Some of them were rushed back with injuries.

Boy being treated in the locality, for pellet injuries as going to the hospital would lead to being caught by the authorities.

Eid in Kashmir

www.facebook.com/598600680197738/posts/2488338081223979

Solo traveller in Kashmir

I took the flight day before yesterday, hoping the journey would be less frightening than last times. More than a month ago, I got on an Indigo flight to Srinagar. Due to turbulence, the journey was so uncomfortable, that the thirty people who were returning from Umrah, started chanting Allah’s name, a woman started vomiting and I too was left feeling sick to my stomach. Due to my general absentmindedness, I told my Dad I was flying Go and throughout the misadventure, I kept thinking that if the plane crashes, my parents wouldn’t even know I was on this particular flight. But this was better, we landed ahead of time. Comfortably? Nothing about flying makes me feel comfortable, in the first place!

The lamba chauda Jat ( reminded me of the ex) who I met at the hotel last time, had sent me photographs of the tulips from his official, weekend trip. Assuming, I too would be able to find some, I dropped my bags and rushed out. I got on a shared cab, which took twenty bucks from me and dropped me, close to the garden. I walked, bouncing away to glory, as I usually do, listening to something cheesy, while the uniformed men, eyed me suspiciously. The sign at the door said, ‘closed to general public’. Since, I don’t understand signs, I end up pulling where it says push and pushing where it says pulls, invariably I’ve headed right into the men’s loo more times than you can imagine (absolutely sober,fyi) I just pushed the door and walked in. Once, I walked in, then they couldn’t throw me out. I searched for tulips and found a few, which had withered. Two older gentlemen working there, then took me to the official area, where I found the last tulips of the season. As I was walking out, there were a lot more men at the gate, who looked at me curiously. One tried stopping me, ‘aap aayee kaise, andar madam?’. ‘ Jadu, se sir, aur ab jadu sai ja rahee hu!’ Off I ran.

In the evening, I went for the Urs of Batmaloo Sahib. My experience with the boys of the area, hasn’t been pleasant. That’s the only place in Kashmir, where the stone pelters have hurled abuses at me and I genuinely feel scared of them. Not having any of the boys, who have worked with me earlier, doesn’t help. I no longer have a mediator. My main man, is sitting in a far away land, trying to earn money for his entire family and should hopefully, be back on vacation, before my next trip.

As soon as I walked towards where the Ferris wheels were, I wanted to crawl underground. There were so many young boys there, some who I recognised and most who recognised me. They stood there, pointing towards me, all their heads turned in my direction. ‘Mar gayee, aaj to tu mar gayee’, I hummed to myself. Tried to make some photographs but the constant surveillance, hassled me, too much. I called one of them over to clear things, ‘kyaa hua?’, I asked. ‘Kuch nahin, hum aap ko jante he!’ replied the eighteen year old. ‘I’m not here to take pictures of any of you, I’m not looking for trouble, I’m just here for the fair!’ I said, feigning a sternness, only SB can pretend to have. He nodded, smiled and then went to inform the rest. I took some pictures, went to the Dargah, to which I was followed but by then I knew, they weren’t going to do anything, for now. Made some more pictures, walked out of there, knowing I was being tailed, caught an auto and stopped at the Boulevard, went to a restaurant to eat (hide) and then came back to my hotel.

You would assume, this would stop me from going back but a girl’s got to do, what a girl’s got to do! So, last evening I went back. The rain kept most people away and the boy from my hotel reception, came to check on me. He took me around, showed me his family graveyard and then we stood in one corner, in plain sight, chatting as it rained. Once enough people saw me with a Kashmiri man, I knew I was safer. As soon as it stopped raining, he went away and I went back to my business. Made a live video, distributed my card, by the time I return today, hopefully, they will be rest assured, I am not an Indian spy!

I big scary monster, grrr!

When one is all of four feet eleven inches tall, plump and waddles like a duck it’s quite amusing and of course pissing off to have uniformed men trying to intimidate you. Sometimes by force, at times with ‘thane le kar chalo’. Jail jane ka to humara bachpan se shauk he!

Kehte he na, ‘Jab Allah Meharban to Gadha Pehalwan’. This Gadha looks like a militant to them. I feel like a big Amazonian woman- Xena warrior princes.

‘Humme kyaa patta apko kisne bheja he!’ Why not, kyuun nahin! Like militants are this stupid that they will send someone who stands out like a sour thumb not someone who totally blends in. The count is twice in six days.’Keep a low profile or you’ll get into trouble,’ yell my friends who have witnessed the militancy of the 90’s. No live videos, henceforth!

Firdaus

I stand at a distance, looking at the images from outside the stall. Ten years and too many tribulations later, the sweat and tears have turned into mere paper. People look at those pieces, some with fascination others with indifference and go on with their existence, soaking in the art around them. I go into flashback.

My memory is terrible, that’s why most of what I recall is through the videos I end up watching. There are of course plenty- from the solo drives, to the one’s in the winter where one was accompanied by a servant, maid, assistant, taxi driver, anyone basically who would give me company on a highway which gets blocked in the winter. Money makes the mare to go and it’s never ceased to amaze me how the domestic help agreed to tread the journey with me, come back to Delhi and twenty five days later got on a bus so that he could accompany me back, to make a few extra bucks. Chinni and Diya ka Safar , is a very amusing video. The assistants on the other hand have been as nutty as I am.

Over the years of course one has been joined by many family members. The Mother’s flown down a few times, so there are the cutest pictures of her dressed like a Kashmiri. The Mother’s family is from Jammu, so over the years they’ve joined me in Srinagar. Many wanted to come when I kept an apartment there but I turned them down as, I had neither permanent help, nor a chauffeur. A trip to Gulmarg with a nephew finds a place on my FB profile, so do the 2008-2010 pictures, with my favourite cousins, who shuttled between Srinagar and Jammu during that time as they owned a restaurant in Srinagar. ‘Di when are you going to send us those videos?’ they ask repeatedly. When I edit a making of my Kashmir project, I think. Every year, one thinks of doing that, every year one thinks not yet. Without the kind of access I got through those delivery boys, I would have never been able to go to some of the places, I’ve been to. They made Loss, possible.

There may be visual records of my journeys, well documented proof of the photography, my presence and the ownership of the cameras ( when one is a female photographer, one needs more proof than you can imagine) but there isn’t a single trace of the what I was thinking or feeling. ‘ ‘Why Kashmir?’ they ask me. ‘Why not? Kyun nahin!’ I see the face of a beautiful man I once knew. No, it has nothing to do with a man! I’ve left my heart by the side of the Dal, where I’ve prayed a thousand times and cried a million tears. I feel as if I’m a machine every where else, I just keep returning to make sure I’m still human.

The misogynistic bullshit, breaks my reverie. Soon one will be on one’s way.

Solo Date #60- pushkar

One is travelling for leisure, for a change. Three days without the camera, away from home ( In Mumbai too but over there it was a family emergency) is a first. Ofcourse it lies in the room with the many books that lie on my bed. I don’t sleep alone, you see.

As I wandered around aimlessly through the market place, picking up gifts, I heard the sound of the Nagara coming from the ghats. It pulled me towards itself as my body moved with the rhythm. A group of foreigners played the nagara with two Indian drummers. I was invited to join them. So there I sat with drum sticks after ages, playing away with the rest of them as the sun set infront of me. Jamming with Nathulal Solanki’s boys on the ghats of Pushkar, is a first. Starting the year with that priceless.

Motors

I arrived last evening and as soon as I did, it was like coming back to life. Met a few people, ate and crashed. Since the past two days had been quite hectic, I woke up exhausted. But since I am supposed to be leaving tomorrow for a trek, (no, not alone) I decided to stay in Srinagar and look around. But before that, the car seat which had been damaged by a person who was trying to help me, in Ramban with some battery issues, needed to be fixed. Driving around with no back support, on mountainous terrains is harder than you can imagine.

So off I went to the service centre at Nowgam. They couldn’t fix the seat but they got it into a position where atleast I get back support. To recline it they taught me a jugaad method. So much for highly automated cars, they come with their own set of issues which local mechanics are too afraid to fix and the service centres in smaller cities, don’t always stock their spare parts. But considering how well behaved my car always is, I should’nt bitch about it.

Talking about cars, after the service station I went to check out the Motor Cafe in Srinagar. Situated in Raj Bagh, it’s a very hip joint, perfect for off-roading groups, biker groups or travellers in general. The theme based decor is fascinating with pistons, crankshafts etc adorning the walls and with an engine that stands near the entrance, greeting everybody. Everyone by now must have figured out, one of my favourite places to sleep, is in my car. I took the table, where they have actual car seats to sit on. Oh, I shit you not, I was so tempted to recline the seat and sleep.

Though, it was supposed to be a solo date, I was joined by a friend as soon as I ordered my chicken and iced tea. Which was great because ‘Khappu’ ( a nickname my friends have given me) has a sweet tooth and she could share a chocolate crepe, as well.

Jammu Kashmir Police Troubles Woman For Being Alone

I sit in my favourite seat watching all the vehicles pass me by. In front of the forest check department in Ramban, trucks as well as private vehicles pass me by, while they stop me under the garb of my security but actually to check and cross check my credentials, repeatedly.

Giving up is not my strong suit unless it’s on men on whom I give up, before I even begin. You would think these hindrances would deter me but it’s the unpredictability of the place, the beauty and the conflict that holds the interest of the opposing characters within me. It’s an adventure yet so bothersome for the people who care about my well-being. As they make frantic phone calls back and forth I’m fascinated with the scene that plays before me, infuriated yet fascinated. SB is at her abusive best and SC for her everything is like an Ali Bachchan film, larger than life, everyone a character and every instance a story.

More and more cars pass by. The number of armed men reduce. One hour of waiting after the tunnel and another goes by at Ramban. Slowly the masked men doze off on their chairs The JKP makes half witted attempts to check people. After all it’s 3 o’clock. They wait for me to back off…I wait for them to back down.

Notes from the road- Guzarishe or Shikayate

Random thoughts that run through my head while driving…incase you are wondering what I do by myself. Mein aur meri tanhai aksar bateein karti he…

Here we go

‘Aap Ko Dar Nahi Lagta?’, they keep asking the coward of the century. The coward smiles, ‘lagta he!’ and answers the slew of questions that follow a reply like that, all the while feeling like a hypocrite. The long list of things she’s afraid of include- even the slightest mention of ghosts, using any toilet at night that’s not her own, sometimes the dark, intimacy, that everybody she loves is going to die before her, heights, closed spaces, crowds, hurting her legs, going blind…it’s an endless list.

Chatted with a group of women from Diu, while I sat on the steps of an eatery waiting for the man of the hour, to make me his famous sandwich. They told me how green and beautiful it was. As per my plan, which you know by now, I follow to the T, not:I was supposed to be there. But my gut, which will get me killed one of these days, wanted to bring me to Chhattisgarh and since I keep feeding the beast, here I am! From Daman to Raipur according to the Baba is around 1,153 km. From Daman to Delhi is around 1, 254 kms. But Raipur to Delhi is another 1,228 kms. So effectively, my butt is screwed.

Spent the night before leaving, listening to a song from Dangal on repeat for 20 minutes, as the gaurd at the Hotel, wondered why I wasn’t stepping out of the car. ‘Kuch nikalna he gadee se madam?’ he asked. I just shook my head and kept listening. As I got off the car, I chanted ‘Sava lakh nal ikk ladava!’, all the while shitting bricks in my pant. After all, I was heading towards one of the most dangerous places in India. All the threads on the auto sites, suggested not driving at night. Apparently, the border between Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh is a bit unsafe. Self hypnosis works well on the coward!

I left Daman the day before, to drive through pothole after pothole till Dhule and then the route got better. I halted after almost 400 kms at Jalgaon. The next day, the Great Eastern Highway, made my life easier, as I drove to Raipur. The sun had set and I had still not reached the border but the route was good enough to keep going, so I did. At a particular stretch, it was like driving through the Western Ghats, greenery, the stars twinkling in the skies, a two lane highway, which was thankfully not deserted. Till Rajnandgaon there was enough vehicular movement.

Honestly, I expected some drama but nope, nothing. No searches, no cops, no check points, nothing! It was smooth sailing. Checked into a hotel and spent the day shooting. Even contemplated driving to Bastar but decided to put a lid on the adrenaline rush that courting danger gives me.

Anjuman

‘I am Anjuman. I am a mehfil, I am a gathering. Of everybody and nobody of everything and nothing. Is there anyone else you would like to invite? Everyone’s invited.’-from the ministry of utmost happiness. ‘Iss anjuman mein apko aana he bar bar.’-Umrao Jan comes to mind.

What is it about characters that live on the fringe of normalcy and society, that fascinates me I know not! With all their shades of black and grey, whether fictitious or real, they are oh so wonderful. Though, I barely get any time to read (my -7 and -8 eyes can only be strained to a point), the pages that will resonate, always do find me. Books, unlike people, find you when you’re ready.

Anyhow, the trailblazing that I am upto is going well. I drove into Indore the other day but unfortunately, as it was a Monday, most of the places I wanted to visit were closed. From there I drove to Mandu. In my early 20s, the exact opposite of my early 30’s , I surrounded myself with older men. One of the most interesting, I met at that point, who now runs a gallery in Goa, went from Delhi to Bombay via Mandu. I don’t recall what he said but I remember yearning to go. As I drove into Mandu, it was like revisiting a lover.

There are plenty of sites, which are protected by the Archeological Survey Of India. I did visit a few, the names and even the images of which will be erased from my memory, in a day or two. I’m not trying to undermine them in any way, it’s that my brain has very little storage capacity. It’s running on a 1gb pen drive, which is erased every few days. There are very few things which get automatically locked and therefore are protected from erasure.

The way a place feels, the breeze, a meeting with a random stranger, a few glimpses I take away for solitary nights, a few smiles and a few tears I leave behind for posterity. Roopmati’s Pavillion, leaves a lasting impression and makes one long for a simpler time.

Yesterday, I began my descent towards Dadra, later than I should have. It wasn’t a smart move. Though, Google baba predicted it was a 9 hour journey and Map my India, 12 hours. The latter, for a change was right. Bhai Sahab, peeth turwane ke liye, ye galiyaa aur chaubare, khuub he. Closer to Surat, the highway was a pleasure to drive on, though by that time, my feet had gone numb and my reflex actions were slower. So, I stuck to the better side of a 100 and reached Dadra at the ghastly hour of half two or was it three?

Our favourite app doesn’t come handy after twelve, so as I wandered the streets of a sleeping city, looking for a place to crash, which had it’s gates open, when a PCR that was doing it’s rounds found me. ‘Brilliant’, I thought to myself. During my last wandering, the Gujarat police searched and made a recording of my car, as if they were suspecting to find a rocket launcher. A day later, the Bomb Squad stopped me on the street. ‘Madam bag dikhao’, they said. Due to the frenzy of the crowd, at the procession of Lord Jagannath, I thought they were telling me my bag is open. I thanked them politely. ‘ Bag check karao, bomb squad se he!’. A part of me was so pissed and the other just thought, ‘well my cousins insist my children will become suicide bombers because their mother is crazy, maybe I have the vibe of a fidayen. Manisha Koirala , popped up in my head. ‘Let’s hope no Jihaadi group, thinks that!’ I thought as they searched and questioned me.

But since, I look like a woman (very rarely behave appropriately) after dark, the cops were not going to search my car but that did not quench their curiosity. So, as one feigned concern and asked me if I required any help, all the while trying to read my face and me his, two just peered and peeped into my car from all directions. ‘Akele ho?’, He asked. ‘ Nahin paltan he saath me, dikh nahi rahee,’ wanted to say my Father’s tongue. ‘ Haanji Sir’ said the adult ego state, that rarely surfaces. They stood around for a while making small talk, as I waited for the guard at the hotel, to open the gate. By that time, I just didn’t care where I crashed. As usual…the men and the streets felt unsafe when a woman loitered!

Bhopal

Though I was supposed to leave a day before, the gut said-‘ not today’. (The gut is always right, unless it is a matter of the heart and in that case it leaves it all to the head!). So I listened and left last morning. The alarm rang at some God forsaken hour, though I did haul my ass out of bed, I still only left at half seven.

After spending a couple of hours on the Yamuna Expressway, I realised that the Rs 415, you spend on the route is worthwhile. I did take the same route while returning from my last adventure but leaving Delhi at dawn, my dear, always has me grinning like a Cheshire cat. It’s freaking magical!

But the minute I got off the expressway and on to something called the Ab Road all hell broke loose. Mind you, despite the 54 days I spent driving through the best and worst highways this country has to offer, I have yet to get accustomed to traffic coming from both sides, on all the lanes of a highway. If you want to test your patience, your driving skills and your Gk of cuss words, try driving from Agra to Bhopal! Almost 13 hours later, I reached the city of lakes.

Delhi- Agra-Gwalior-Shivpuri-Guna-Bhopal route that I took, had me driving on potholes and being diverted towards villages as the Highway is under construction. The almost 800 km journey only offered some respite, when I reached a district, about a little more than a hundred kms from Bhopal called Rajgarh. Though, my butt and my back will beg to differ, the journey was worth it. Bhopal is an incredibly beautiful place, with the right mix of traditional and modern and I absolutely loved the vibe. It has one of the largest mosques in India, which I spent the afternoon debating over and the evening researching to come up with no conclusive answer. Let’s say there is a tie between the Jama Masjid, Delhi and the Taj Ul Masajid, Bhopal and thankfully we shall soon be able to put the matter to rest as the largest Mosque is being built in Kerela.

I navigated through the city painlessly today and other than a couple of fussy women I chanced upon, near a statue of our dear Mother India (yes there are those too), the people seemed open and welcoming. If you like me enjoy being a Single, Single, Tanha Begum, this is the city for you.

P.S- I still have to update all my solo dates from the previous adventure, so give this one some time.

Farewell

On the eve of my departure to God know’s where ( I shit you not other than narrowing down the state which is Madhya Pradesh, I have no clue where I am going) one has to wonder if one has any different thoughts from the previous wandering. Not really…the parting thoughts remain the same (if I pop it search for parting thoughts). Other than the men I inevitably run into while traveling, there have been no special additions and surprisingly no subtractions in the past few months. The feelings remain the same, for practically everybody I mentioned. The desires too remain the same.

Although there is sometimes a fleeting regret, that if it all got over today, what a pity it would be to have not been totally ruined by love? Majnu ki aulad banne ki bahut khwaaishthi humari! Aashiq mijaaz to tha, lekin dil phek type ke he zara…jo bhi pyaar se mila hum ussi ke holiye! But it’s ok…so what if not even one of the stories was as fantastic a chase as the Thomas Crown Affair or as complex a story as the Fountainhead.

So what if I was easier to ‘be fascinated with but so tough to live with’. So what I did’nt go on a tempo to a man’s house, with my brothers and serenade him with, ‘arre oh Jumma, meri janneman, baahar nikal!’. So what if I never did send a handwritten note with Narula’s lines-‘I want to do to you what spring does with the cherry trees’ or Ghalib’s, ‘ Ishq mujhko nahin wahshat hi sahi…meri wahshat teri shauhrat hi sahi.’ None of my fantasies have me playing wife, mind you!

But these are just passing regrets…With my commitment phobia and a world that’s moving rapidly towards online hookups, this dramatised version of a Love or even an unrequited one would’nt have been possible!

Solo Date #43- Udaipur

Natraj Restaurant, Udaipur.

If you land up in Udaipur, don’t leave without visiting the Natraj Restaurant. The Rajasthani/ Gujrati Thali is delectable and of course I love playing dress up…I never miss a chance to pose for the local photographers.

54 Days Later

On the 1st of August, I returned to Delhi…to the same chaos, the same streets and the same spot on my flyover (the only thing I looked forward to). A little had changed, or perhaps a lot-the dargah I love had been partially demolished, the relationship with the Father had become strained and the Mother looked like she had aged a couple of years. I on the other hand felt a mix of pride, shock and betrayal. Why, the latter you may ask? When I left a part of me thought I wouldn’t return! As soon as I reached Greater Noida, I was so overwhelmed I sobbed like a child.

Another year has gone by and this is the Anniversary Edition. I want to thank everyone who checks out the blog and by that I mean-the men I have dated, the ones who want to date me or the women who want to make sure I don’t go after their men. Kidding! But just incase, this is a notification- it requires a gigantic effort to seduce someone’s man/woman and I am too damn lazy to do it.  Enough of my sarcasm, on a serious note, this year’s edition will be about surprise, surprise, my days on the road.

Solo Trip To China

So here I am, in the land of the Red Dragon, for the very first time. Apparently, I visited Hong Kong and Taiwan when I around six or seven years old. But you know how fantabulous my memory is! Like the couple of pictures in the old album which faded, so have all my memories.

So,  this is technically not the kind of journey I embark upon. It’s a serious business trip, the first one I have ever been on- that requires for me to play adult. Ya, ya, I know I entered adulthood a couple of decades ago…but my friend…let the body not fool you.

As for fooling, there I was assuming to be the shit..oh my God so bloody good at the masking and all…and not one but a couple of different people broke my illusion. As you are aware, I hate flying! So on the flight to Hong Kong (then took a ferry to Shenzen), I watched that God forsaken film a number of people asked me to see, to keep myself distracted. Well, so much for the autobiography my brother wanted me to write. After watching the film I realised it ain’t going be that interesting, after all! What a snooze it is to be so damn predictable! 

Anyhow, Shannon my co passenger from Ireland, was travelling to Hong Kong for the very first time to get a gig as an English teacher. Though, the men in my family have been doing this for decades, I had no idea what this journey would be like for a single woman. At the Shekhou port the lady at immigration, gave me a hard time. That should have been my first clue. 

Though, the business associates, picked me up and helped me to check into the hotel, even at the best of places, there are very few who understand English and even fewer who speak it. The language barrier is worse than it was in Europe. The people also seem a bit indifferent, so no one smiles back or greets you. It’s almost like being invisible in a strange land. 

Plus Google baba and Facebook don’t work (only on International Roaming you can gain access). But it is not for leisure, may not be pleasant but it is an adventure, nonetheless. Plus, I always find ways to make mischief…just got to confront the wall.

Chuk Chuk Chuk

Have an absolutely fantastic weekend, at the Jashne-Rekhta. Barring my phone being picked from my pocket, while shooting, it was my idea of perfection.In the 36 years of my life, prior to the past one and half years, other than my men (kidding), nothing has really been stolen from me. First my car was stolen from infront of my house, then my car was broken into and the bag and tab were stolen and yesterday my pocket was picked and my 15 day old phone was stolen. 

Obviously, some energies are releasing and something fabulous is coming my way.But as the rail gari, is going chuk, chuk, chuk, I’m having a hard time trying to not worry about the camera.

Did I not mention, I am on the way to Khajuraho? I type this in a darkened compartment, having just a few palpitations on my way. If you know me, you know that other than driving on my own, all other means of transport send a shiver down my spine. Knowing, just how uncomfortable this was going to be for me, the Father sent the driver and the Sugar man to drop me. Last minute the Mother decided to accompany them too and when I reached the station, the paltan increased as the Anonymous Aunty dropped in to surprise me.

I have not felt this lost and this pampered in a long time. As AA, settled me in, fussed over me-gave me a book to ‘distract me’, music to ‘soothe me’ and a million standing instructions, the man on the lower berth just looked at me and smirked. There are a million things I can do alone, travelling with strangers in a confined space,  is obviously not something I do, well.

The 53rd Day-Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea

a 100 pieces of me

53rd day in Kashmir.

 

Pakistan slogans in Kashmir 2016

53rd day on the Kadals.

 

Calling the CRPF for engagement, Kashmir Unrest 2016

Calling the CRPF for engagement.

 

The older children try to entice the CRFP, while P.K. watches them. P.K is a 5 year old boy, who engages in this activity because he wants 'freedom'. Ask him what his name is and he says 'Mera naan Burhan he.'

The older children try to entice the CRFP, while P.K. watches them. P.K is a 5 year old boy, who engages in this activity because he wants ‘freedom’. Ask him what his name is and he says ‘Mera naam Burhan he.’

 

53rd day of Unrest in Kashmir

53rd day on the Kadal.

 

Saadiya Kochar

53rd Day of Unrest in Kashmir.

 

a 100 pieces of me

The forces make their way back to the area.

 

Saadiya Kochar

A boy checks on the lane behind me to ensure, I don’t get hurt.

 

53rd day of unrest in Kashmir

Removing the Blockage

 

Pellet guns kashmir

The Chase

 

Pellet injuries

The Search

 

Kashmir 2016

An older man takes me to his house to show me the wreckage after a nocturnal search. Damaged windows, appliances and a stench so terrible, that from the moment i stepped in, I had a hard time controlling the cough.

 

saadiya kochar, pellet guns kashmir

‘Aa maar hume pellet’, yell the boys, while the one with an already existing injury, advances forward.

 

a 100 pieces of me

Kaini Kadal-‘Non-lethal’ methods of crowd control. While the boys yell out ‘kalia, kokur-ch%#dh’ as insults, the armed personnel retort with ‘CRPF ki aulado’.

 

Saadiya Kochar

‘Tu police walli he’, asks this boy, incredibly agitated by me. ‘Na’. ‘Phir itna jigra kaise he?’

 

Retreating the boys run inside the smaller lanes and the armed personnel begin pelting stones.

Retreating the boys run inside the smaller lanes and the armed personnel begin pelting stones.

A couple of boys move towards the Karan Nagar side.

A couple of boys move towards the Karan Nagar side.

 

Karan Nagar

Stone Pelting in Karan Nagar

 

Habba kadal stone pelting

After the crowd has dispersed, on their evening rounds the JK police pelts stones on a house. A girl screams from the adjoining house,’ Ma’am when you go back, please tell them we are not terrorists but freedom fighters, like Gandhiji.’

 

After spending an entire day, watching what they called 'chua-billi ka khel', I head back. As I do, the armed personnel try to remove the blockage.

After spending an entire day, watching what they called ‘chua-billi ka khel’, I head back. As I do, the armed personnel try to remove the blockage.

‘It has happened and it goes on happening and it will happen again if nothing happens to stop it.

The innocent know nothing because they are too innocent.

The poor do not notice because they are too poor.

And the rich do not notice because they are too rich.

The stupid shrug their shoulders because they are too stupid.

And the clever shrug their shoulders because they are too clever.

The young do not care because they are too young.

And the old do not care because they are too old.

That is why nothing happens to stop it.

And that is why it has happened and goes on happening and will happen again.-Erich Fried.

 

Ji khabar aee he…pathrav ho raha he Keni Kadal me,’ says the voice on the phone. It’s 10 a.m on the 30th of August, the 53rd day of Unrest and I have decided to miss my flight. The government has lifted the curfew but the shops are shut and according to the calendar the women are supposed to gather at the crossings.
Though, there  are autos on the road, not a single one is willing to take me there. A little further away from the Police station, a ‘kani jung’, has been dispersed and the CRPF are searching for the protestors. I wait a while and then ask a passerby how to get to Kaini Kadal. He’s kind enough to walk with me. ‘Aap akele na ghumme yahaan. Aadmi ke saath chale. Haalat kharaab he,’ he says concerned about my well-being. ‘Aadmi kyaa karega? ‘, I ask him. ‘You could get lost, it’s best to be with a man who can guide you. I will take you till there but be careful.’ We walk for a bit, people ask him who I am and where he’s taking me. ‘She’s just a lost tourist’, he replies in spite of knowing, otherwise.
We reach the area, which is close to Habba Kadal and Karan Nagar. As we reach the bridge, he stops next to a few boys and says, ‘Ye aa gayaa aap ka Kaini Kadal. Khudda Hafiz.’ Since there faces aren’t covered, it takes me a minute to realise that I’m standing in between the protestors.’Aap uss taraf jao. Photo nahin kheechna, yahaan se,’ says a ten-year old boy. I walk across the road towards the CRPF. Now I’m on the Habba Kadal, side and there seems to be an entire battalion there-rakshak cars, police vehicles, Jk Police and the CRPF. ‘So many for a handful of children’, I think to myself. I walk around and wait…I wait and wait. It’s around 11.30 in the morning. The ex assistant calls to ask if I’ve found my way and to call as soon as I reach the hotel. The forces ask me where I am from. ‘Delhi’. ‘ Where is the rest of your team?’, they ask. ‘ I’m alone.’ ‘Darti nahin ho, kyaa?‘ they ask in disbelief.  ‘Kyun aap nahin darte?’,  is my only retort to the silly question. Everyone feels scared, whether they admit it or not!
I sit down on the steps of one of the closed shops. A middle aged Kashmiri man joins me. ‘ Chotti yahaan mat beth. Humare ghar chal. Chai pi.’ Kashmiri hospitality at its best. I politely decline the offer. After the basic introductions, we sit around chatting about the state of affairs. ‘Tu jis cheez ki wait kar rahi he, voh jaise he ye gadiyaan jangee tabhi hogi.’, he informs me about the impending circumstances. A family cautiouly steps out from the house, opposite to where I have unceremoniouly parked myself. ‘ Please come to our house, incase you need anything. Bathroom, jana hoga to, aa jana. Just because the circumstances are such doesn’t mean we have forgotten how to take care of our guests.’
 Slowly the Rakshak cars and seventy percent of the troops head back to the camp for lunch. As they make their way back, one asks me to come along. ‘ Madam, chalie khaana khaeye.’ I decline the offer, though in retrospect I think it would have been an experience breaking bread with the men, who spend their lives trying to protect us.
 If you’ve never been to Kashmir, you can’t imagine what a sight a woman wearing cameras around her neck, sitting alone on the steps of downtown is. By the time the Zuhar Namaaz is over and the troops have left, it has been mentioned in the Masjid and half of the locality comes to check me out. I meet all kinds-the kind ones, the hospitable ones, the agitated ones, the curious ones and the suspecting ones and I am truly intimidated.
In between all this, I am handed a cup of tea and roti by the family. The usual questions  ‘Where? Why? How? Saadiya what?’ The standard reply- ‘Kochar..I’m  not Muslim. I’m a Sardarni!’. Nowhere, do I  ascertain my Sikhi more than in Kashmir only due to the unfair advantage my first name grants me. A loudmouth starts to articulate his displeasure with me in English and some of the sceptics cheer at his fluency.  ‘I don’t appreciate your tone’, is all I say when he begins to ask me for my I.D. ‘Don’t stammer…don’t stammer!’ I tell myself. Right on cue, an older gentleman appears and asks me to come to his house. ‘Kal se press valon ko phone kar raha hu. Koi nahin aaya.‘ Thankfully, the ex assistant calls. ‘Someone wants to take me to their house. I’m going, ‘ I tell him. ‘Let me speak to them’, he says panicking. ‘ Please take care of her,’ he tells the boy who escorts me. ‘Don’t worry she is our sister,’he replies.
Off I go, through the lanes with a small group into a house. As soon as I enter I can’t stop coughing. There are broken appliances and clothes on the floor. ‘They came to search for our sons, saying they are pelting stones. When they couldn’t find them, they broke everything. I don’the know why the SHO is targeting  just my family. The Jk Police tortures us more than the CRPF,’he claims. A few short interviews later there’s a panic.  ‘Police..police!’ yells someone outside and a member of the group runs down with my bag. I run after him but I am blocked. Within a few minutes, my bag is returned and there are no cops.
I am escorted back to the Kadal ( bridge)  where I wait in anticipation. A five year old boy in a green shirt, glides towards it and starts to block the road. ‘Wo aa gaya P.K. Iska bhai 10 saal ka he aur jail me he. Iss ko bhi le ke gaye the station. Chaud diya,’ an adolescent informs me. ‘Ask him what his name is?’ I call P.K and ask him what his name is. ‘Mera naam Burhan he!’, he says. ‘Humare naam roshan karega!’, smiles the adolescent proudly.
And then suddenly everything starts moving at a crazy pace. They appear from nowhere…5 year old..10 year old.. .15 year old…20 year old boys. They all seem unfamiliar. ‘Jo jahaan ka hota voh wahan par nahin karta, protest’. They block the roads and then the younger ones run across the bridge to entice the CRPF and sure enough they appear. Fully covered in front of fearless, abusive children.
There are various groups divided between Habba Kadal, Kaini Kadal and Karan Nagar-each only a kilometer away from one another. I glide between both the Locals and the armed personnel..arousing the suspicion of both. By the end of the day, the boys have had enough of me. One of them sends me off to sit with the ladies under the bridge. They fuss over me. Thankfully my phone doesn’t quit ringing and I hand it to them to answer and inform people of my whereabouts. It’s just a precautionary measure.
The boy in the red mask appears without his mask. He enquiries from the ladies (in Kashmiri) if I have been taking pictures from that particular spot…have I been asking them any questions about the boys. They reply to the negative. Then he begins to question me…ultimately he gets agitated. ‘Tu police walli he kyaa?’ I nod. ‘To phir itna jigara kese he?’ ‘Sardar hu iss liye!’ But he’s unconvinced. My meekness doesn’t help so I do what I do best- Behave like a drama queen- ‘Ye le mere I’d.  Mere ghar ka pata he, agar police walli nikli ghar me aa ke maryo mujhe.’ That’s too much for him to hear. ‘Do you think I want to hurt you? Nobody will say anything to you but go away now. Stop taking pictures. Enough.’ Actually, after spending a day there, I have had my fill!

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

 

 

IMG_0215

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

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One of the most volatile localities in Srinagar.

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‘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.

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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.

 

 

The 50th Day

50th day of unrest in Kashmir.

                   Since there was a call to march to Badami Bagh, the area was cordoned.

 

 

 

Lal Chowk on the 50th day of the unrest of 2016.

                                               Lal Chowk on the 50th day of the unrest of 2016.

 

 

50 days of unrest in the Valley.

             50 days of unrest in the Valley.

 

A Rajasthani man busy with his occupation while most parts of the city are under curfew.

A Rajasthani man- busy with his occupation while most parts of the city are under curfew.

 

 I wake up with a tremour. The fear of flying coupled with a general anxiety about visiting the Valley at this time (after last month’s sojourn..do you blame me?) makes me incredibly nervous. The cab is a little late…the parents are awake and for the first time in a long time, the entire entourage (parents, the help and the dog) come outside to bid me adieu. My hands start to tremble in the cab. ‘It’s a sign…my final goodbye’. ‘Madam T3 jana he?’ asks the cab driver. ‘Haan’. And of course that’s not where I’m supposed to go! Get dropped at T3 and as I get off the cab, I realize I’m at the wrong terminal. Hail another cab…reach the airport, on time thankfully and just keep walking around in a daze. I just can’t seem to calm the nerves. One of my greatest fears in life is…fear. It’s a vicious circle, the minute I start feeling afraid, I become so nervous about the fact that I’m scared that I start behaving incongruous. Trip a few times and only after I buy a few books do I calm down. A few more faux pas later,  I am convinced the universe is giving me a sign but I have already boarded the flight. 

After visiting Kashmir continually for the past nine years, you would expect more from me, as I would from myself. But over the course of the past year, one has witnessed the growing suspicion towards the Non-Muslim in the Valley. Plus, I’m arriving all alone fifty days after Burhan Wani was killed. So it ain’t going to be a walk in the park. Anyway, share a cab and land up at the same hotel where I stayed last time. After all, I need to be near trouble. 

Check in and an hour later I step out into a mild drizzle. The weather is perfect for a nice walk. Though, there’s a lot more vehicular movement most areas are cordoned. It’s an odd mix of normalcy and captivity. Walk towards Yaseen Malik’s territory and get into an argument with an armed personnel. He tries to flex his muscles and I try to pretend I ain’t scared of nobody. We argue for a few minutes and then his companions break up the party. ‘Madam aap aage jaa ke kaam karo.’ I try again and succeed. In the corner sit two men at work. I chat with the Rajasthani workers who have been working in Srinagar for the past sixteen years. ‘ Hume koi kuch nahin kehta yahan par. December tak rahte he. Phir March me vaapis aate hein.’ 

Take a quick glance at Lal Chowk, which looks as deserted as it did last month and start to make my way towards Badami Bagh. The Joint Resistance leadership was supposed to walk towards the 14 core of the Indian Army at Badami Bagh and though, it’s a little late, I want to go there to see what’s up. Autumn is almost here, the weather is beautiful and without the conflict it would be the perfect place to live. The light drizzle turns into a mild shower and I hail an auto. The movement of traffic is restricted but there are a lot more people around this time. A few pictures here and a few pictures there and I ready to go back. ‘Madam kaun se channel see he aap?’asks the auto driver. I inform him that I am a free lancer. ‘Humari awaaz pohachti he ke nahin?’. ‘Yes, people know what Kashmiris want,’ I tell him. 

By this time we have reached my destination but he wants to chat. So  while it rains we have a heart to heart sitting in an auto parked outside my hotel. This forty year old auto driver, from the territory of the Mirwaiz has completed Msc. Four of his friends have been missing for over a decade and he himself was imprisoned for a few. ‘Unhone itna mara poocha militant he, mene bola hu,’he confesses. ‘We just want our freedom because we were free in the first place. Both Pakistan and India just want our land and they don’t care about the people. But at least Pakistan doesn’t torture the people of Azad Kashmir. I leave my house at six a.m so that I can earn some money. What can I say to you? Look at our people. Madam is saying the people who were killed didn’t step out to buy milk and toffee. NC, tortured us for many years but I never felt as bad as when I read this. This is the worst kind of betrayal.’ We eventually say goodbye.

I come back to my room and wonder why I was palpitating. That’s till, the announcements, the whistling, the yelling and the hum kya chahte begin. So for now, the light remains on the entire night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Solo Date #10- Nehru Planetarium

Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi

Nehru Planetarium, New Delhi

I’m sure I must have visited the Nehru Planetarium as a child, on the usual school trip but I don’t recollect it.  Have I found the second most romantic place in Delhi, after my flyover? Hell Yeah! It’s also the perfect place to take yourself out on a Sunday afternoon before you head out for the evening. That’s exactly what I did.

 

Caught the 3 p.m show at the planetarium, that was once the official residence of Jawaharlal Nehru. Forty minutes in a darkened auditorium, looking at projections of galaxies merging into one- one devouring the other, the planets and their moons-juxtaposed with the screeches of little children. If you don’t want the disturbance, visit on a weekday.

 

The place was packed… in fact the 250 seating capacity was full to the brim, for the four p.m show. The exhibition area, the bookstore and the souvenir shop are soon to be upgraded.

Address– Teen Murti House,

                   Teen Murti Marg

                    New Delhi

 Nearest Metro– Race course (Yellow Line)

Show Timings– English-11.30 a.m and 3 p.m

                                Hindi- 1.30 p.m and 4.00 p.m

 

Monday the 18th- Kaani Jung

'Rakshak ko bhejo'

                                                                                      ‘Rakshak ko bhejo’, yell the protesters 

My highly evolved defence mechanism maybe self-destructive for my relationships but it serves me well, in Kashmir. Start getting a terrible feeling in my stomach at six in the morning. ‘ I shouldn’t go to SMHS, today.’ I fall back to sleep. Wake up…it’s drizzling..type my blog post for the previous day least I forget something.

‘It’s raining and there is a tight curfew in our area,’ Mr T informs me. I head off to Nawhatta in an auto. ‘These auto guys are as crazy as I am!’, I think to myself as I sit in one which is willing to take me till, ‘Jahan tak apko jane denge Madam.’ There are a number of autos that have borne the wrath of the stone pelters as well as the security forces. At the first check point we are sent away. We take another route. We are stopped in front of Dastagir Sahib. A look at the id and once it’s determined, (after some confusion about the name) that I am not Kashmiri, (sir papa ka naam dekho) I am given the go ahead. After the ban on newspapers, my peers are looked at unfavourably.

Auto ride through a city under curfew

                                                                Auto ride through a city under curfew

The whole of downtown is cordoned off.There are barbed wires everywhere and unlike the other parts of town there’s no vehicular movement. We don’t get to reach the territory of Mirwaiz but in an auto we’ve gone far enough.

When I reach the hotel I’m told that there’s stone pelting taking place in Chanpora. I send a message to Mr T to reconfirm. ‘It’s over and please don’t go there. It’s Mr Geelani’s area. An MLA has also been attacked’.  I send a message to the former assistant informing him, just incase I need to be bailed out. Off I go in another auto with the condition, ‘Madam auto door rakhenge.’

After the stone pelting in Chanpora

After the stone pelting in Chanpora

 

The lanes are tiny and I am glad I’ve missed the ‘kani jung’. It looks horrific. I take pictures of  JK Police, speak to a person from the locality who shows me the broken window panes of a masjid. ‘We don’t know what to do! The boys are destroying their own property. We are asking them not to. They ask us to speak to the security forces but we can’t. We can only try to stop our own…we are stuck in the middle.’ 

A rickety rickshaw ride back to the hotel and a couple of hours later I get a call from the front desk. ‘Madam, shelling ki awaaz aa rahee he (tear gas shells). Pathraav ho raha he. Dekh le agar jaana he to.’ ‘Shukriyaa Janaab’ , I thank my informant. Batmaloo is the where the trouble has stirred. A boy from that locality has passed away the previous day.

KASHMIR 2016

KASHMIR 2016

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Kashmir Protests 2016

Kashmir Protests 2016

I head off with a new auto driver. Something about the stone pelters has changed. All these years in Kashmir, having covered so many protests, I’ve never faced a scenario where the boys have heckled me. Infact, they’ve gone out of their way to ensure my safety. I can’t count the number of times, bystanders as well as protesters have given me shelter in their houses, when the situation became uncontrollable.

 

 

Madam ko bhejo!‘, they yell from the opposite side.  ‘Ghar me Ma nahin he teri,’ yells a JK police sub inspector. ‘ Rakshak ko Bhejo‘, they yell again. ‘JK police hame kuch nahin kareege. Ye hamaare bai he!’. ‘Now we are their brothers,’ he turns around and says to me. The Jammu and Kashmir Police department has recently had to deal with the wrath of the protestors.  It’s a terrible position to be in-going against your own.(to be continued)

 

Kashmir 2016

Kashmir 2016

Sunday The 17th-SMHS

Graffiti on the shutters of shops.

The Legend Of Burhan Wani

 

Kashmir 2016

Kashmir 2016

Two nights later I’m feeling terribly homesick. Wake up at 5 a.m. in a city where suddenly everything seems unfamiliar. I can’t call home, since the hotel staff couldn’t pay the landline bill. Even if I could, I wouldn’t!  I’ve lied to the Mother about being in Agra with my friends. She’s recovering from a neurosurgery, the last thing she needs is to hear  the truth. The Father and I react the same way, feigning  indifference. The last thing I want to hear is, ‘I don’t care.’

SMHS

SMHS

 

Janaab M, my auto driver from the previous day is waiting for me. He’s going to accompany me inside the hospital. We smuggle my camera in, avoiding the few attendants who are outside. The torturous images that have made their way into the papers are all from SMHS. Images of the four-year old Zuhra, whose body has been pierced by pellets, the twenty year old unknown boy whose head was pierced with bullets, shattering his entire brain. The photograph of a 14-year old Insha Malik, who has lost vision in her right eye, a photograph of 31 year Parvez Ahmad who has lost the vision in his left eye.

We enter ward no 8, where the majority are suffering from ophthamalogical injuries. At six in the morning, almost everyone is asleep and totally bent out of shape.’What is a boy who has been disabled going to do in Kashmir? We’ve successfully worsened the Kashmir conflict by doing this.’I think to myself.

 

Darul-Atta

Darul-Atta

On one of the beds sit two attendants with a patient who is awake. I ask the patient if I can speak to him but he politely declines. We quietly move out and step into the adjoining ward. An attendant steps out to speak to us. As I am introducing myself, he sees two men and abruptly cuts me short. ‘Madam camera andar rakho aur jaan bachcha ke bhaago.’  The urgency in his voice makes my movements swift. The man who is part of the collective- Murawat centre, the recently released from prison bully, is walking towards us. I walk past him without making eye contact. Janaab M, looks at me and says,’ Jail se nikal kar abh ye volunteer hein. Ladko ki madad karte hein.Tabhi uss ladke ne bola, jao.’

The situation at SMHS, reminds me of something Andrew Thompson,

A patient who has suffered eye injuries, being taken to the ward

A patient who has suffered eye injuries, being taken to the ward

who served at one of the U.S run detention centers in Iraq wrote. ‘At Camp Bucca, for example, the most radical figures were held alongside less threatening individuals, some of whom were not guilty of any crime….This provided a space for extremists to spread their message. The radicalization of the prison population was evident to anyone who paid attention. Unfortunately, few military leaders did.” We really need to pay attention to this circle of violence and it’s consequence.

 A few minutes later, the same attendant joins us. He now only addresses my companion in Kashmiri. ‘There are a number of government agents in the hospitals. That’s why no one wants to speak to her. The men are being bashed up.It’s best if she avoids this place.’ I catch up with the 

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Tawheed Forum Jammu and Kashmir

We leave, I get dropped outside my hotel. Switch autos as a precaution and head off to see what’s happening in downtown. The new auto driver has much to say. 

By 8, I have done whatever I could. I’m scared and lonely in a city which has felt like home for almost a decade. Get dropped to my  former assistant’s home where everyone is pleased to see me. I apologise for barging in this early, unannounced. They insist it’s not too early. I’m fed and fussed over. Kashmiri hospitality at it’s best.I leave within an hour  before the curfew becomes strict and the few autos on the road also become unavailable.

Bemina

Bemina Youth Welfare Committee

Reach the hotel and miraculously, the staff hook me on to the very dodgy wifi. Blog entry posted…whattsapp status updated and I start replying to all pending messages. Mr T, my photojournalist friend from Srinagar, has been trying to get in touch with me. I inform him of my whereabouts. ‘Don’t step out alone’, he writes . Within an hour he lands up. Am I glad to see him!

We head off to SMHS, yet again but this time without our cameras. At the J&K Yateem Trust counter inside the hospital we chat with Zahur Sahab, from the Darul-Atta, Rainawari. ‘The government is providing cheap medication, not the kind that is required to heal pellet wounds. We’ve been here ever since, providing medication to the people in the wards.If the government was taking care of the patients why would all of us be here? ‘ I take a few pictures with my phone.

As we move towards the wards we cross paths with the bully. I’m glad to be with T, who looks like a typical Kashmiri boy. Though, there’s a hostility towards Kashmiri photographers too, being local is better than being ‘Indian’. On the way out, we come across a group of men, slapping someone and screaming ‘Card dekho iska, card dekho!’ ‘They are accusing him of being an agent. I’m glad we didn’t bring our cameras.’ says T. It’s total mayhem.


 

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.

Friday the 15th-Jummah

7th day of curfew in Srinagar.

7th day of curfew in Srinagar.

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.

Curfew continues in Kashmir

Friday the 15th-Curfew continues in Kashmir

 

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.

X’mas

Wake up to a call from the one who waits. ‘Don’t you have to go?’ ‘Yup but it’s too damn cold.” It’s 8 a.m…it’s a Christmas morning in Kashmir. I sleep for a few more minutes and then drag myself out of the electric blanket. The room’s freezing as usual…I light up the gas heater. The tiny gas cylinder with a round dish like apparatus starts with a whoosh.
A quick trip to the the loo and the ice cold water that gushes out of the tap wakes me up for all of eternity! No hot water means a dry bath…body scrub and baby wipes.

A few cups of tea later, I rush to the Holy Family Catholic Church on Maulana Azad Road. ‘Madam, bag check karao,” directs the vardiwalla. The security is tighter than usual…the vigilance has exponentially increased. But that is true for the entire Valley. Even when one was crossing the Banihal Tunnel, one could sense the doom in the air.

The Church looks different from the last time I visited. Much has changed after the floods. I’m too early, the Christmas Morning Mass only begins at 11 am. After all the ‘Chillai Kalan’, the 40 day long period of the most chilling, biting nights has already made it’s grand entrance with the night temperature dropping to -5. I pay my respects, I am now in all too familiar territory, with the convent education and all…and find a place in the middle of the tiny church, on a pew next to the heaters.

It’s a long wait, the congregation slowly trickles in. All the carols we sung in school are now blaring through the loud speaker, in Hindi. At just around 11 a.m arrive a throng of my peers. They make it to the front of the church and park themselves between the altar and the first pew, blocking parts of the aisle. The mass begins. I catch only parts of it, about how riches don’t bring happiness etc. I’m unusually distracted by the photographers. Halfway through the mass there are more photographers in the church, than members of the congregation. There they are snapping away to glory. I take a few photographs from my seat. A number of times during the service, the Priest stops his sermon to ask them to move to the back. But to no avail. By now my blood is boiling. I ask one to take it easy. He apologies but it all continues. There’s no space for the Priest or  congregation to move. I just take a few shots from the back of the church and step out.

There is a standard procedure that outsiders follow when they come to the Valley. Fraternising is the best way to gain access. But I keep to myself, everywhere. Unless, I am interested in someone as a subject or out of an inquisitiveness that I rarely experience, I speak only when I’m spoken to. So I wander aimlessly, waiting for the congregation to step out. The throng comes out too.  There I am keeping to myself when one of them approaches me. “Mere behan banogee kya?” I kid you not..no hi no hello..no introduction…that’s the opening line. Maybe it’s my size or that I look like a dumb, lost child…but a lot of boys I encounter feel the need to be my saviours – my princes on white horses or my brothers. Instead of warming up to him (like a true cynic, I don’t believe words or trust actions only intentions), I turn nasty. ‘I don’t want to speak to you, forget being related to any of you. The way all of you totally disregarded what those people asked for! Why don’t you try behaving like this in Hazratbal?”

I have no idea what takes over me sometimes but my voice has now become awfully high pitched and  there I am yelling at what has formed into a group of  influential photographers of Kashmir. FYI it’s a lot, I hold in high regard due to the risky nature of their vocation!

My unsuspecting peer, doesn’t know where to look. ” Too many of the new guys come from villages and are uneducated, you can’t accuse all of us of being uncivilised!”, he says. In retrospect I realize arguments such as these are unnecessary. First, I don’t make pictures as a means of earning a livelihood with editors telling me what to do and when. Plus, I wrote once about ethics that everything boils down to who we are in private, when no one else is watching!

Anyhow, a familiar face sees me fretting and approaches. It’s Mr T, a young accredited photo journalist, someone I have bumped into on many occasions…he has all the characteristics of a ‘good guy’. This is the first time, we have a long chat. He calmly explains to me the behaviour of his colleagues, tells me what is happening in the Valley and parts ways having exchanged numbers.I get a call from my assistant who isn’t in the Valley these days. “Don’t go to the Shrine today there may be trouble.” he says. “If there was the press wouldn’t be here”, I reply to my Mother hen.

A few conversations and some photographs later I quickly rush home to get out of my white jacket and red cap and to put on my pheran. Now, I’m dressed in my Dargah attire. On the previous day, one had visited the Shrine for Eid-e-Milad-ul-Nabi celebrations, a festival to mark the birth of  Prophet Muhammad and was returning for the continued festivities.

I’m too late. By the time I park my White Horse and head towards the Shrine a swarm of men is moving towards me. An hour of this that and the other and I am ready to leave. As I head towards my horse, I  get a message saying that there’s a strike tomorrow. It’s from Mr T, then another asking where I am. He sends a photograph of a procession and asks if I want it. For a minute I don’t understand and then it dawns on me. I’ve heard rumours of this being a common practice amongst photographers. ‘Na, thank you’, I write back.

Come back to my Oh so freezing apartment. Grab a quick bite and drop in to say hi to my land lady- A fierce Sardarni in her late , she’s lived in Srinagar, for what seems like forever. She has all the qualities of a Kashmiri-strenght, resilience, vulnerability and a prejudiced mind set.  Each time she sees me, she reminices about the time past. We chat for a while and another message appears from Mr T. ‘Heavy stone pelting in Jama Masjid.’ he writes. “Oh shit!”, I say out aloud. “Ke hogeya”, asks my land lady. I tell her. “Iss time pe tussi nahin jaoge!” It’s already 6 p.m and pitch dark outside.  “Menu jana bhi nahin he, dekh chukki ha aur nahin dekhna.” I’m going to buy some veggies and and then I’m going to pray. “Sardara di kareengi pooja ke Musalmana di?”, she asks in her customary way. I feel my temperature rising but I know it’s a waste of time. “Mein bin pende da lota..na ithe da na othe da. Mennu sab same lagda he ji.” I bid her adieu.

I am very distracted by the day I’ve had. The Anonymous Aunty calls. We talk about the weather…I try to pray but I just go through the motions. Check my messages and Mr T has very sweetly sent a few more. Chat with the boy for an unusual amount of time and fall asleep. A quarter of an hour later, I wake up to the tremor. I hear doors opening and shutting and people stepping out of their houses. ‘Wild horses aren’t going to drag me out of this warm bed, tonight!’ I fall right back to sleep. At 4 a.m the rat in the house manages to make me jump out of bed, with his daily visit!

Solo Date#5-Drive.

Alas!I’m in love.

image

Since I’m a terrible creature of habit, driving a new vehicle is disturbing for me. I bitch about how it’s no match on the previous one, irrespective of how good or bad the former has been. It takes me an average of six months to get used to new cars and new people. A trip during this period is highly advisable. So I head to Pushkar, just me and my white horse ( I am now  my own Prince Charming!). 
It’s the day after Diwali and National Highway 8 is fairly deserted even at half eight in the morning. Off we go zooming towards familiar terrain. ” Have you left? Where have you reached?”, the boy is at it from half seven. “They’re always nicest when they don’t  have you”, I think to myself. ” Do you know my car starts to beep when it hits a particular speed?”, I yell excitedly into the handsfree. I’ve tried all my experiments on an isolated road. The lecture begins…

The desolate road- the dearth of cars and humans, makes me hungry. I reach over for my supply of snacks and beverages. Dig into the bag of banana chips and suddenly Mr Akhtar’s voice resounds through the vehicle. ” Woh Shakl pigli to har shai mein dhal gai aise. Ajeeb baat hui he usko bhulane mein.” As each chip makes it’s way into my mouth each moment of what shouldn’t be recalled  plays through my mind. “Should I call the wahmbulance?”, I imagine Lily( from the Modern Family) asking me instead of her queer Dad. “One more tear and I will whack your face!”, screams my parent ego state.

A sip of Mango Frooti, fresh and juicy later… Tom Petty and Queen manage to uplift my mood. My companion and I are now in for the ride of our lives. Many wonderful tunes and a few toll booths later, I arrive at my destination already in love with my companion- the white horse.

Nepal Diaries #7

Flew back yesterday from Kathmandu. The trip was too short and I did too little. On the flight back, my co passengers discussed where they were, when the big afternoon tremor shook the daylights out of us. One of my co passengers, a lady from Chhattisgarh, was trying to get to Barpak to hand out relief. She returned to Kathmandu, the same day and preponed her flight to Delhi. “I am a mother after all,” she tried to explain to me. No justifications were required. If I had made any babies, maybe the choices I make would have been diffrent. Whose to say?

Another passenger, was returning from Pokhra, when his ‘vehicle shook’, he said gesturing his hands from one side to another. Everyone, was quite shook up. But the strange thing is, that yesterday morning when I hailed a cab and went around Kathmandu taking pictures of the various houses that had come down, the bystanders seemed calmer than the tourists. For us it was an unusual occurence. For them, it’s something that they are slowing resigning themselves to. Read an article on Indiatimes.com, which stated that the worse is yet to come and an earthquake 32 times worse, is likely to hit the region..

http://www.indiatimes.com/news/world/terrible-news-an-earthquake-32-times-more-powerful-might-be-coming-232183.html

I returned home, to a very upset family. My choices have always bothered them but this was legitimate… I would have hated to be in their shoes, too. But they’ve come to a point where they know asking me to not to do something is futile. So my Mom very sweetly just looked past me, turned to my Dad and asked, ”Why did we produce her?” and my Dad shook his head and replied,”Now, I can’t do anything about it.”

Day 5- Earthquake Diary

I  couldn’t drag myself out of bed this morning. The excess luggage has screwed my back. Somehow, managed to leave for Tudi Hill by late morning and what a trip it was. At around 12.50, as I packed up my cameras and was making my way towards the exit, I suddenly felt the tremors and then there was just utter chaos.