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 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.

KASHMIR- the famous saga (2)

In most of my pictures from Kashmir, you’ll find me dressed in a four hundred rupee phiran, with a cap on my head and filthy shoes. The girl in dirty shoes was produced by this beautiful, stylish, woman is hard to believe. The epitome of elegance.

I rejected my femininity, quite forcefully, after a certain age. I most definitely rejected the clothes, my mom made me wear. I went from wearing the shortest clothes, to wearing anything that made me blend in, it made life easier and with time the job too. This was all to my mother’s dismay. She liked nothing better than seeing me, all dolled up.

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.

Lockdown in Kashmir

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.

Kashmir Under Siege- Revocation of Article 370 and 35A

www.facebook.com/a100reflections/videos/78053596234176

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?

Chakwali- the last village near the LOC

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

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

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

A few quick answers before my next update-

What are the permissions required? None.

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

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

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

 

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!

Women’s day 2019

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!


Jammu Kashmir Police Stops Tourists From Leaving Pahalgam

For what are apparently security reasons, not only the yatries but any car with a number plate from outside of J&K, is not allowed to leave Pahalgam between 4 p.m and 7 a.m.

The reducing number of tourists and yatries at both Pahalgam and Sonemarg, makes one wonder how the local population is dealing with the inconvenience the Amarnath Yatra is causing them. From road blocks, to restrictive commuting, to uniformed men standing right outside their shops with guns, for the dwindling numbers of tourists must be a real bother. Not enough can be said about the damage it causes the environment. If only they would have thought these things before extending the duration.

The official figures will convince you of the enormous number of yatries, who have arrived here. But if you have driven to Srinagar, visited both Pahalgam and Sonemarg, you will wonder if the numbers are a figment of someone’s vivid imagination. Forget visiting, just check out any application or website for hotel bookings and you will find most of the hotels in Kashmir, at a discounted rate. What was once the most expensive time to visit the Valley, due to the inflow of tourists has become a really slow season.

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 

IMG_2952

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!

The Girl In Dirty Shoes

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

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

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

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

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