Siddharthya Swapan Roy travels all the way to Srinagar to see that it uncannily mirrors the phobias and pretensions of his home city.
On a rather warm morning in Srinagar in the July gone by, I answered my phone in choking gulps. To my folks who were eager to know how wonderfully different a land Kashmir was, the news that I was eating pohey for breakfast was a bit of a letdown. The rush for the meeting didn’t allow me to elaborate, but not only had the staple breakfast from my home state refused to leave me even a thousand miles away, but true to its die-hard tenacity, it had maintained its characteristic, remorseless dryness. And the origin of the chocking sounds was from the mandatory pushes we have to give it with coffee and tea if we are to swallow it.
As it turned out, the pohey was only the beginning of a series of commonalities.
Sniffing out (im)morality
About a week or two before arriving, I’d read about a fatwa being issued against immorality in J&K. One about how short dresses and deep necklines of women were polluting the environment, spreading immorality in the pious air of Kashmir.
But even after a good hour and a half spent walking up and down the Dal Lake promenade, haggling with overcharging shikara boatmen, sharing chai and bread with a beggar and his child and almost buying overpriced slices of way-past-expiry cucumbers just to beat boredom, I saw no immorality. I saw hordes of plain-looking women tourists accompanied by bawling brats pestering them to insanity for buying this and that; a hippie woman who had stuck a lily plucked from the Dal in her shirt and was mighty pleased at being authentically Indian; lots of local women with headscarves and fully covered bodies — older ones out to do grocery buying from the evening bazaar and the younger variants coming from schools and colleges, giggling about god knows what; dark-skinned migrant labourer women who spoke in harsh, fast, rustic tongues and stuffed themselves and their underfed infants into overcrowded buses and autos for a ride home.
But try as I might, I saw no immorality — at least not the variant which had taken the sleep off the eyes of fatwa fetishists.
I gave up and joined a bunch of hungry bus drivers at a ramshackle kabaab stall standing in a corner of the squalid bazaar. I managed to ignore the revolting stench of the black, frothy slime flowing through the open gutter near my feet and sought out the warm aromas of spiced, skewered mince roasting on wood fire. And summoning the great quality of chalta hai and not letting the idea of hygiene interfere, I managed to feel warm and happy biting into the bun-meat combination.
But then again, I come from a city where flower vendors jostle for space with public urinals and food markets are set up alongside heaps of un-cleared refuse. Separating undesirable smells from desirable ones is something I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. Frankly, it comes nearly as easy as breathing.
The rabid nuts of my city, they never seem to notice how most colleges and schools here have horrible toilets, dirty canteens and taps where, unless you close your eyes, you can’t drink. But they never miss a chance to haul the girls up for their crime of wearing pants to college and spoiling the otherwise temple-like, pristine, academic atmosphere. And this they, like everyone else, claim makes their unique identity known to the world and sets them apart.
Likewise, ignoring the most obvious forms of pollution that bog their cities, the bigots of Kashmir busy themselves in hunting down (imaginary) women in (ostensibly) sexy dresses. And they say this misplaced masculine bravado underlines their unique identity.
Like me, the vendors of political morality sniff out only what they can handle. Beating up a few immoral women is a far more achievable target than fixing the sewer and drinking water system of a city. And we all need to set achievable targets in life, don’t we?
With its crowds, dirt, smoky chaos, smeared and chocked public toilets, Srinagar does a miserable job of living up to the epithet of Paradise on Earth. In fact, one tour of the city by foot and the epithet seems nothing but propaganda if not the creation of those who run the tourism business — the main thing the city sells.
My city, Pune, too has a glorious sounding adage — the Oxford of the East. But one visit to the spurious colleges holed up in all imaginable (and some not-so-imaginable) corners of the city and the way readymade degrees are sold over the counter by crisply dressed fraudsters and you know the glory is nothing but a handiwork of the magnates of education — a prime sell of the city.
Riding in an auto in Srinagar convinced me that both my home city and this were the land of warriors. For, not to be discouraged by the lack of war-going stallions, which their forefathers are said to have ridden, they charge their vehicles in a manner truly becoming of their past valour — ever ready to duel an insolent who dares cross their path!
Yet again, it’s much easier to pick fights with a fellow citizen suffering from the same choc-a-bloc traffic than taking on a well-armed administration who is responsible for such a scenario.
A cancelled meeting and a hartal in Srinagar had all but relegated me to a day in a closed hotel room with nothing but idiots in the box for company. But I ran away. Against good advice I ran away early in the morning before the hartal-ists had woken up and enforced it.
The loudmouthed twenty-something man who drove me to Gulmarg overheard my phone calls and guessed I had something to do with newspapers and writing. So he promptly started a conversation about how he’d sacrifice his life upholding the grandeur of Kashmiri identity. Soon fact mixed with fiction and the sense of pride of being Kashmiri became laced with the obnoxious idea that everyone who is not a Kashmiri Muslim is an outsider. To lend a sense of credence to his ranting he generously dropped names of famous leaders and indicated how he was close to them and knew the stories as an insider.
Patience running low, I told him how, if he replaced the words Kashmiri with Marathi and Muslim with Hindu (and maybe his surname Daar with Thackeray), he could easily pass of as an intolerant right winger from Maharashtra. As for him being close to all leaders worth their name, I told him he sounds just like the boys back home who sit at the chowk all day and talk about connections to political leaders.
Once in Gulmarg I decided to relegate the memories of ranting intolerant nationalists to the backyard of my memory.
I sighed at the high, folded mountains and seeking out a quiet corner and a cup of steaming tea, I penned a few lines. An ode to the august pines, the turbid clouds that came down from the heavens to caress the hills and the forests, the streams of molten mountain snow and their shining sand and silt beds, the grassy hill slopes caught in a deluge of daisies with clusters of violet-purple lupins breaking the cheery green-white-yellow.
When the soft rain fell on the tin roof, I held out a hand and, taking some drops on it, I let my mind once again become a teenager hopelessly in love.
Of course, the beautiful ode called for cutting out the bad parts like the mad rush of tourists, cheap thrill seekers, bottles of “pure natural spring water” thrown in roadside streams, and the stench of soiled mules carrying the burden of our juvenile fancies on their wretched backs.
When I revelled at the vast treasures of eternal beauty, I trimmed the visage to keep out the exasperating havoc of ephemerally powerful beings playing god. Just the way I would do in a Mahabaleshwar or a Matheran or a Mulshi.
When my phone rang that late that night, I had just about finished a conversation with a poor old Kashmiri waiter at my hotel about how his aching knees beg him to retire but the farm produce back home doesn’t fetch enough price, a phenomenon that forced the now-nearly-60 man to migrate to Delhi at the age of 12 and has ever since kept him away working in hotels trying to augment the family income. Leaving the story of how farmers in my state are doing just that incomplete, I answered the phone from Pune.
Not realising how bombs go off in my state every other day, my people were worried that the militancy in the valley, combined with my habit of not conforming to accepted norms of travel and interaction, might just prove lethal. “Relax”, I told them… “I’m completely at home”.