An entire body of works, from 2007 till 2022, is part of a book project, titled- The Women of Kashmir. Over the years much has changed in my subject’s lives personally and in terms of their identity! I might take some pictures next year, as well, you never know with me! The book is divided into a few parts, some of the works have been shown over the years at the India Art Fair, like the one above but most of them have only been emailed to a few curators and ofcourse Mary Ellen Mark (attended her workshop in 2010) who was instrumental in directing the works this way .
Many a books have come out from the time I began. That doesn’t hinder my project in any way. When one initially began, the only way female photographers would shoot Kashmir, was to go through NGO’s. I took the same route, met Parveena and Parvez, though they were very helpful, I realized that I don’t do well with viewing the world through anyone’s eyes but my own- skewed, tainted, cynical ones! Plus, I’m not an activist, philanthropist not even a feminist. Right from the word go, from my first book, which is stark white and black with hints of colour, to my first film- Loss- which looked at the problems faced by the Kashmiri Muslim and Kashmiri Pandits, one holds what one calls the ‘ greediest view of the world’, wanting to look at everything- from every possible direction one can!
There’s much that one hasn’t been able to do in Kashmir, there’s much when I view the works in their entirety, look at and think, wait a little longer, try a little harder but without organisations pushing you, without proper press credentials and with being looked suspiciously at by both parties- the Pandits think I’m Muslim and with an agenda and the Kashmiri Muslims, a lot of times think I’m a spy; this is what I could do.
Like curator after curator, has been telling me, it’s time to release it, maybe it is! But one’s apprehensive, it ain’t good enough just about yet and once the works come out…I might not be able to return ‘home’!
Side note/ technology is handy, anytime you get accused by some hot shot-there’s Flicker, which will display all your file info and your emails, too can help determining who all were sent the images. This is valuable info for long term projects because anyone can quickly churn out something and turn the tables on you. When I put up the image above, a very famous male photographer got pissed with me. Someone who uses ‘black backgrounds’! Thankfully, for me the pictures had already been published, long before, he did his show and my first book, was filled with such pictures. Unfortunately, I can’t accuse him of the same because it’s needless, doesn’t work in reverse and two because I have studied and taught photography, so what a hypocrite I would be, to get my own references from international photographers and then accuse someone else!
‘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!
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.
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.
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.
‘Ajab bahar dikhai lahu ke chhinton ne, khizan ka rang bhi rang-e- bahar jaisa tha’- Junaid Hazin Lari.
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.
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.
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!
Boy being treated in the locality, for pellet injuries as going to the hospital would lead to being caught by the authorities.
Protests against the revocation of article 370, were organised in New Delhi by the Left, on the 5th of August. Article 370 was sprung on the people, revoked by the BJP government, just the way demonisation was unceremoniously sprung on the whole of India. This decision taken in haste has already lead to deaths in the Valley.
From unofficial sources, news is spreading ( since all official means have been shut down) that the Rashtriya Rifles are present on the streets of Kashmir. JKP can’t be seen anywhere. Rumour has it, that in Noorbagh area people tried to break the curfew. The locals only became aware of the revocation, when the announcement was made in certain masjids. Cable, mobile, even landlines are snagged. A doctor has confirmed three to four deaths and apparently there is stone pelting taking place, in certain parts.
Meanwhile, protests take place in different parts of the world against the revocation. In the University of Dhaka, the students carried on a protest, a US based Muslim organisation is going to organise a protest, too. Whereas Pakistan has tried to get the support of Turkey and Malaysia. Even in India, various organisations are dissenting against the move.
On the flip side, news is filtering in that most people in Ladakh, have welcomed the move to bifurcate the state and turn Ladakh into a Ut According to them- Ladakh was being given step motherly treatment. The funds that were supposed to be given to Ladakh, were being given to Kashmir. Educational institutes, funds, jobs were being given to Jammu and Kashmir and basically development would take place after Ladakh, would be totally integrated into India.
In July when I visited Gurez, there was something off about the way people were speaking. The them versus us, drawing room conversation that one tries to not get agitated by, in Delhi, I was suddenly hearing in what I thought was the Kashmir Valley. Up until now, it was but I’ve been replaying that over and over in my head today and now I have my doubts. ‘Madam hum Kashmiri nahin he! Madam Kashmirio se hum ache he. Madam humari bhasha alag he! Madam hum Hindustani he!’ The Shina speaking Dards of Gurez told me all this. I assumed that because the person I banged into was a Bhakt, a member of the BJP, that’s the reason, I was hearing all this. ‘Humme Ladakh ke saath aane chahiye!’ I discarded as just regular conversation, as I do all the hate mongering that comes out of the mouths of some relatives based in Jammu.
The past week, we all knew something terrible was going to happen- the revocation of the articles was an agenda, we all suspected that would happen but the downgrading of a state to, make it into a UT, has taken everybody by surprise. But we can trust the Modi-Shah duo, drunk in their supreme power, to not treat Kashmiris like people. After all they didn’t spare their own Hindu brethren during demonitisation, or like many of us suspect, earlier this year, too!
So while the rest of India screams, ‘Hail Hitler!’, the few of us in the crowd, just hang our heads, yet again, in shame, For going back on India’s word by not including or even consulting the Kashmiris, for making a mockery of democracy and most of all for spreading fear amongst the people of Kashmir, the yatries, the casual workers and the press. ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ they yell deliriously, while a four year old, sits locked up in her house in Kashmir, wondering when she will go to school? where should she play and a few months into the lockdown what should she eat?
When you cross the check points from Bandipora, towards Dawar, don’t forget to mention that you are there to visit Gurez Valley and not just Dawar, otherwise access will be denied. Though, special permissions are no longer required to travel to Gurez, the checkpoints are very much there and the Army and JKP are keeping a close watch. The road to this remote village is horrible, filled with back breaking potholes and the old fashioned speed breakers, without any markings on them and which are big enough, to ruin your car’s suspension. Between one village and another, truly there isn’t much difference, therefore, don’t take everyone’s advice who says they visited this place and you must too. I was there to find out about the state of affairs of the local school. The short interview will be uploaded on this post later. Until then take my word, this is the land of the Dards, the last village of the Tulail Valley, where there is extreme poverty, which hardly has any visitors and is closed for the majority of the year, due to the terrible climatic conditions.
A few quick answers before my next update-
What are the permissions required? None.
What is the procedure? Carry your identification and passport size photos (just in case).
Is it safe to travel alone? I wouldn’t recommend it, at all. No one will do anything to you, but you can get stuck due to climatic conditions or just a breaking down of your vehicle. Transportation is not easily available and neither are basic amenities. Your phones will not work, either. There are way too many checkpoints and to get access alone, to these places by yourself will be very hard. A lot of people lie about visiting Chakwali, as most of the villages on the way, look very similar. So don’t tread there by yourself, believing any random person.
Is it a safe place to travel? Of course, it’s safe and gorgeous. Roads are some of the worst one’s I’ve driven on. But Bandipora isn’t safe right, now. There was an encounter going on when I was coming back to Srinagar. Plus, grapevine has it, shit is going to hit the ceiling very soon. There may be months of curfews so keep it off your travel list, this year.
On an afternoon in March, when I had a couple of hours between two appointments, I went to Hunger Club. The previous night, I had eaten at my favourite haunt in Kashmir-a small dhaba called Paakezah and opposite that is this newly opened, swanky restaurant in Rajbagh.
Post lunch it was fairly deserted- too late for the locals to eat and no tourists in town. The chicken was delicious, but it was the company that was quite interesting. No, I didn’t go with someone, it was while I was there, by myself, enjoying my meal, that I met the owner. I was just going about my routine, eating, chatting with the waiter, in this case making a few suggestion about the place, when the owner overheard the conversation and asked if he could join me. Anywhere else in India, I will look a man up and down, think ‘what the hell does this one want?’ and utter something quite obnoxious to make the man split. In Kashmir, I’m someone else, quite chatty, unlike my usual porcupinal ways.
The conversation of course remained about Kashmir, we were joined by a friend of the person who sat opposite me. Before I knew it a couple of hours had passed and though I was asked very subtly, if I was a Khalistan sympathiser (which is the the rudest thing I have ever been asked. I didn’t want to stay in Hemkunt Colony and I definitely would never move to Punjab…so I don’t need a Khalistan, thank you very much) it was a fairly engaging, well spent afternoon.
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!
A lot has happened over the past month. On the 14th of February 2019, as we are all aware, a convoy carrying CRPF personnel was attacked by a Fidayen. This resulted in the death of more than forty men of the Central Reserve Police Force. The attack was condemned by Indians, the International media and the Kashmiris. The Pulwama attack, led to the Balakot attack in Pakistan. The series of events which took place after that, had all of us glued to our television sets for hours, waiting for Abhinanadan to cross the Wagah Border.
All this while on this blog one posted nothing. ‘Zip it if you have to come here and cover anything’, I was told. Unfortunately, after the series of events, one has not been able to drive to Srinagar by one’s self. This year on women’s day, we dedicate the entire month to the Kashmiri women and to the women who ask for peace.
At the Aath March Saath March, today, a reporter said to Memuna from AIDWA, ‘don’t tell me about war tell me about women’s issues!’. To which she retorted, ‘Do you think war is not a woman’s issue?’. I stood there nodding my head thinking about the widows of the jawans, their mothers and their daughters. I also stood there thinking about the Kashmiri mother’s whose children have been attacked, thrown out of their paying guest accommodations in the middle of the night and had to return to the Valley, not knowing what the future holds for them.
Appeasement is what most would term my attitude towards Kashmiris. I would like to think of it as empathy. One’s never agreed with many things that the Kashmiri state but one’s also vehemently opposed the atrocities that are carried on in Kashmir. To not see those and stand against those, would make me inhuman. To not be moved by the plight of a mother or a sister, whose son or brother has been missing for decades, detained without any charges for years, blinded and worse tortured and killed, isn’t possible for me. If that makes anyone assume is because of a Kashmiri man, so be it! If that makes me anti national, so be it!
Before we go ahead and isolate every single Kashmiri, leaving them with no choices, let’s give compassion a chance. Before we accuse them of everything, let’s not forget for a minute that Kashmir is not just a state, the conflict makes it one of the most profitable businesses in the world and everybody other than mother who produces the child who looses his life, fighting from this side or that, has something to gain!
I returned from paradise, in a transient state-neither here, nor there both, SB and SC confused about how to behave. SC who is rarely allowed to come out, has been raging to go for a while, throwing a fit inside SB’s perfectly crafted heaven (or hell, where she is most definitely going). SB who has been coaxing and pleading with her, to calm the hell down, ‘wait till we reach Kashmir, then it’s your turn’ had managed to keep a lid on the little one, with those words.
After the enormously difficult trip from Delhi to Srinagar, I had my doubts SC would be seeing the light of day. Uniformed men scare the crap out her, they remind her of a time when the Mum was unwell and the cops would come to the house at night, because the neighbours would complain about the ruckus she was creating; of domestic violence and of course of bribery. SB on the other hand sees them and is reminded of her being harassed for trying to save a man’s life, of her calf being felt up, of trying to be used as a human shield and of course of being threatened not once but multiple times. This one goes mental when she encounters them, staring at them right in the eye and speaking in a tone that makes most of them mistake her dislike for an arrogance, that can only come out of being connected in this country.
But once I reached Sonmarg, all the walls just came crashing down. The right tone of voice, the wind blowing through her hair and some yummies for her tummy, is all it takes for SC to be happy. And of course being pampered silly, never really harmed anyone. From Sonmarg as she walked with her companions to Tabletop, those ten kilometres were the hardest. No one tells you how far these places are, to be fair they assume it would as easy for you to trek, as it is for them, who have been walking on those terrains, forever. The number of Indian tourists who were complaining about how far the lakes were, should have changed our mind but it didn’t.
By the time, we reached Tabletop, after a few hours of walking and the boys set up the tent, SB had disappeared into thin air. Not a whimper, even, I shit you not, there was complete silence. As the kids gathered around the tent, to peep in and look at what we were upto, SC, just lapped up all the attention and had the time of her life. Tabletop is not a camping site, it’s a midpoint to Nichnai pass, where one can stop for a quick bite or a hot cup of chai. As we had started late and it was about to rain, on the first day we camped, here. Due to my clumsiness and propensity to get burnt, I was banned from touching the cylinder. So I switched on my Sare gama mini as my companions, prepared our meal. One by one, women and kids came asking for medicines. Next time, I better carry some.
The next day, we began early. By 7.30, we were all packed and ready to go not realising what we were up for. If you have been trekking in Ladakh or Himachal, this is a fairly easy trek for you. Even if you play a lot of sports or are fairly physically fit, you will enjoy this but if you are Moi, who falls sick on high altitudes and waddles like a duck, wow, this is going to be so bloody taxing on you! First, there was a steep uphill climb, then a walk through the forest which was so beautiful, with Silver Birch trees everywhere and then there were the dreaded rocks as we made our way upstream along the bank of the river. A group of Kashmiri men, waited for me to make my way, through them, while they waited patiently.
When we reached the Nichnai camp site it was around eleven thirty in the morning. We hung around for a bit and decided to keep walking towards the Vishansar camp site. It just grew harder and harder. On the trek to Gangabal, many moons ago, I had to be given CPR, I was hoping to not land up in a similar situation. Whilst, I was thinking it was hard only for me, I saw more Indian tourists returning without making it to their destination and even some foreigners getting sick. Music surprisingly didn’t help the pain that I started getting in my ear. That’s when I remembered a chant I was taught in a Sufi class, ‘ Allah Hu, Allah Haq’. Now, before you begin to give it a religious connotation, just recite it once and you will realise it is very similar to any breathing exercise, that is taught in a yoga class. So, that’s what I did. Sipped slowly on water and went ‘Allah Hu- Exhale’, ‘Allah Haq-Inhale’, as we crossed through the mountainous terrain, through a river and as we walked through the rain. Up until where the uphill climb for the Nichnai pass began and ‘Uncle’ the horse rider, left the luggage at the pass and came down to get me. We saved more than an hour like that, he said and me from collapsing, I thought.
At the Nichnai pass too, there is a small makeshift cafe, where you can get the usual, eggs, tea and maggi. Of course at that altitude, things become five times the price but the respite that you get from the tiny little, cup of tea, is well worth it. Word of advice, if you ask any Kashmiri how far your destination is on this trek, they will all tell you it is just around the corner, which it is not! According to my Fitbit, on the second day, we walked more than 25 kms from Tabletop to Vishansar camp. What took me the entire day, as I waddle and bounce, would take you about eight hours or even less.
On the third day, we rested the entire morning, and then walked upto to Vishansar and Krishansar lake in the afternoon. Took shelter under a rock as it rained, profusely and then made some pictures of the lakes, which to my eyes, looked too similar to Gangabal. On the fourth day, we again began our descent towards Tabletop instead of Nichnai camp, as aesthetically it just didn’t please my eyes-there were just tents of various shapes and sizes, lined around and the sound of chatter, everywhere. Due to a lack of water and the number of shepherd’s homes, Tabletop is unpopular with the tourists, making it perfect for anyone who has aversion to crowds.
On the fifth day we came back to Sonmarg and SB started to slowly show up, while SC has been slowly disappearing. Essentially this trek starts from Sonmarg and ends at Naranag, covering all the major lakes – Vishansar, Krishansar, Gadsar, Satsar and then Gangaba. But since one has already visited Gangabal earlier and was short on time, could only manage these, for now.
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.’
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
‘Apko dar nahin lagta didi?‘, asks my father’s rather chatty chauffeur as he zips me to the airport at half seven. ‘Lagta he!’, I reply distractedly as I play with my phone. ‘Phir kya zarurat he jane ki?’ ‘Maut jahaan aani he, vahi aayegi. Waise bhi- humara kyaa he? Na koin uppar niche, ronewalla na koin ronewalli, janabe alli!’ (Incase you’re wondering, the dramatics are the consequences of my childhood crush on the Angry Young Man).
It’s the (in)famous Jummah day in Kashmir. The day when the clashes between the armed force personnel and the protestors are intensified by religious fervour. The killing of Burhan Wani, has had a devastating effect on the people of the Valley. The aftermath of that – more than 37 dead, hundreds injured and blinded due to pellets. This count doesn’t even include the loss of life or the number of injuries suffered by the Armed Forces. Those of us who frequent the Valley, could sense something unsettling was coming this way.
I arrive to a deserted city. It’s eerily peaceful. There’s a curfew but boarding passes are curfew passes, so we are let off easily. The cabbie drops me off in front of the hotel, which is walking distance from trouble. I check in and get to work. The Friday prayers commence. People pray and then leave. I wait around with the men in uniforms, who are kind enough to offer me a chair. I have never been on this side of the fence – no questioning, just politeness and courtesy. Over the walkie talkies it’s ‘alpha’, ‘charlie’ and ‘romeo’.
A couple of hours later- the word on the street is – the city has been peaceful. I head back to the hotel. In the evening, the curfew relaxes and I head out to buy some beverages. The hotel is running short of ration supplies. Thankfully, the ‘doomster’, has munchies to get her through the next few days. I ask a few people but every thing is shut. Right then a scooter stops. ‘Pehchana?’ ‘Haan, photographer hein aap?’. Not that I remember but has to be. Turns out he is. Mr Z, introduces himself and offers me a ride. ‘Did you manage to shoot?’, he asks as I hop on. I give my standard reply to most questions, ‘No.’ ‘But I might go to the hospitals tomorrow,’ I continue. ‘Nahin waha nahin jana. Maar raheen he waha par press ko.’ ‘Since when have kashmiri men started hitting women?’, I ask him. ‘No they won’t look at you as a woman but as a photographer. It’s really bad over there.’ I’m very confused by the time we exchange numbers and say our goodbyes.
Buy some stuff from my regular guy at Rajbagh, walk for a few kilometres and find an auto. I ask the auto guy if I will get bashed up by the locals? He’s aghast. ‘You’re our guest, please come and stay with my family. No one will hurt you.’ I thank him profusely. When I reach the hotel, I ask the manager if he’s heard of any such instances. ‘Ofcourse not! No one will do anything to you.’ By dinner time the news has spread. The waiter who comes in to hand over the omelette, is very concerned. ‘Ma’am mene suna he aap ko kissi ne bola ke aap ko maar padegi. Hum aurato ki bohat izzat karte he. Mein aapke saath jaoonga, koi kucch nahin karega.’
I reassure him that I’m aware of the decency of the common Kashmiri man.
Right on cue I get a call from my former assistant. He’s one of the few people who is aware of my whereabouts. Since the mobile networks are jammed he’s been unable to get through. ‘Mein ghabra gaya, subha se apka phone nahin mil raha he. Somehow I managed to get through to the hotel. I’ve informed my family that you’re in Srinagar. Go to my house. They’ll take care of all your needs!’ Somehow, I convince him that it’s important for me to stay put. By the time we say ‘khudda hafiz’, I’ve decided to continue as per my original plan.