Home away from home

Mughal Road

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

(Video shot Enroute Gurez)

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

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

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

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- 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.

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!