The author of this piece takes the reader on a journey into the everydayness of Kashmiri life. It goes through the blood-stained hospital corridors, walks through the expanse of paddy fields, and emerges out walking somewhere in a snow desert. The piece is not one coherent travelogue but an assortment of bits of memories and images.
Harud and Wande (Autumn and Winter)
“If you haven’t stayed here in winters, you do not know what Kashmir really means,” more than one person had told me two summers ago.
How do you come to understand the places and people you grow up with? And how do you come to understand the places and people you meet later in life? Sometimes by coincidence, you reach somewhere, and what you find there makes you keep coming back. The air is like vibrant, cicada chirring the first welcome of the Kashmir valley after crossing the Himalayan Peer Panjal range through Banihal tunnel.
Right at the bifurcation to Verinag spring, a friend of a friend is waiting for me. Towards Duru, Islamabad/Anantnag. It is the year 2016. Beginning of harvest season. From the fields, the rice ears seem to wave and call with dry whispers. The roads are as good as empty.
This is not a piece about the July 8, 2016 encounter in Kokernag or about the funeral processions which followed. Not about roads filled with people, men, women, all ages, out for protest marches, queues of army buses filled with soldiers getting relocated, their shotguns’ pellet rain which blinded hundreds, deaths on the roads and in the homes. It is not about the depredations that follow mass protests and the difficulties people bear in months-long shutdowns. It is also not a piece about a 2017 army operation “All Out” and related “standard operating procedures”. It isn’t, somehow.
It is about a few everyday moments I remember, and how people keep up commitment to their occupations, in a place the Indian State, since nearly 30 years, has kept in a permanent state of Emergency, in a place where people since a long time live and work for their (political) self-determination.
Dusk and uncertainty about the roads on the first evening in Kashmir make me follow the invitation of people I just got to know. The family of a friend. His brother-in-law takes me further the next morning. We stop at the local hospital. His daughter who last night entertained me with ball games and imitations of an elderly relative’s snoring has a small injury close to her right eye. I had heard about the situation in the hospitals during these last two months, overcrowded in many parts of the valley, doctors and nurses working extra shifts. The corridors when we walk out with the prescription are filled with people waiting. Most of them for family members admitted with pellet gun injuries. Young volunteers hurry back and forth to support the staff and the families. A good number of the injured people apparently decide not to consult the doctors but rather go to a blacksmith’s workshop for makeshift treatment, afraid of the police raiding hospitals to find and arrest stone throwers, I later read in a Kashmiri newspaper. Next to the article is the image of a body x-ray. Hundreds of tiny metal pieces under the skin of the person make his torso and head look like a sieve. Other articles report about retina specialists from Indian AIIMS hospital are rushed in to support the Kashmiri doctors who struggle to extract pellet fragments from numerous eyes, while outside the paramilitary forces and police continue shooting on protesters. I also read about a 5-year-old boy, found on the road, sand rubbed into his eyes, and a thin needle sticking in one of them, inserted just like that by an Indian Central Reserve Police Force man. ”Army ha aayi. Yim ha layan mea,” the words of the child quoted in one of the local dailies. My brain fails to provide any frame.
In front of the hospital groups of volunteers prepare food for the people inside. Our car leaves the court. On the seat behind me, the daughter balances a brown paper bag with the medicines on her knees. Her father points to the ambulance ahead of us. I look at him. He nods. Transport outside the towns, on the main roads, is still highly restricted. Someone waves in our direction “Today they transfer only medicine”. A fast farewell, then I switch the vehicle to cover the last kilometres. Two doctors sit next to the driver. They move a bit to the right. Through the small window behind our heads, I see other passengers in the back. Nobody is injured. While in the car, all the pictures I had seen via social media posts of ambulances’ bonnets dented by army personnel and scattered glass splinters of ambulances’ windscreens cracked by soldiers’ sticks don’t come to my mind. Also not the reports of security men beating up drivers and the transported patients. Fifteen minutes later I get off as quickly as I got in.
On one of the days behind the garden walls, I have forgotten if it was curfew or hartal. Mud has left a mark on her trousers’ knee. She is the lady of her fields. Under her fingers, another handful of haakh seedlings finds a space in the humid autumn earth. Due to months-long shutdown and protests her office is closed for weeks. She intensified work at their home. Side by side we move through the bushes, harvesting what feels like myriads of red chillies, warding off mosquitos. Her husband piles up dry leaves and weeds in a corner and sets the heap on fire. Ashes for the soil. His mechanical lawn mower controls the green 10x15 meters patch in front of the house. But then, grass has been cut short already yesterday, you can hear the rasping of blades along the ground. Morning is for picking the big bottle gourds to fill the stocks before the approach of winter. A common practice here. Wash, cut in halves, clean, slice. Her hand and knife seem to belong together. Keeping up is a task. Though I must be doing my part well enough. “Dear, I want to adopt you”, she repeats twice. I can’t but grin. The thin snippets are placed row after row under the sun. Tightly laced wicker baskets already store the air-dried vegetables from the last days. Wind shakes the trees’ branches. Like orange rain, leaves fall on the grass. When I look up, I see his grey-haired head bending downwards. He starts collecting the leaves. “They irritate me”, his hand already stretched out for the next few. When he turns away, I quickly collect some myself. The roar of the lawn mower engine echoes faintly from the red brick walls. Stone clatters against metal teeth.
From beyond their premises, a distant noise is growing louder, feet on the road, voices calling. They mix with the persistent chirring from the trees and fields. Harude’ Roush, I write down the Kashmiri word for cicada in my notebook. Some of these species apparently stay underground up to 17 years till they reach maturity. They then burrow upwards, towards the surface and when they feel the right time has come, they emerge from the dark of the soil. A swarm of them is said to produce sounds up to 120 decibels— equivalent to a military jet aircraft’s take-off. This chirring later blends into the steady chipping of sickle strokes in the nearby paddy fields. Someone hums a melody, while morning turns to noon. My nose catches bits of warm dust and sweat. Raspy ears tickle my palm. And row by row the harvest workers turn them into a tile shape pattern of long ochre-coloured sheaves. After drying they will be stacked into spiky bales, the form of large bee hives, visible from far in the fields.
Some days later a friend sends me a message with a video attached: First the frame is filled completely with yellowish smoke. Someone’s scream. Then about a dozen rice bales emerge through the haze. Maybe the collection point in a village. More than half of these bales are burning. Shielded men in uniform encircle them. People try to pass through from different sides. Sticks keep them at a distance. The camera is shaking. Suddenly gunshots, the crackling of fire continues, interrupted by a call for evening prayers. There is no gap in the line-up of the uniformed men. In front of the people, their harvest turns to ashes. End of the recording. The army from the country of rice fields and farmers’ suicides repeats this work pattern in several other places throughout the Kashmir valley. And walks away.
We meet at his workplace, where he can be found if he is not busy doing what he considers to be helpful for others. His ideas about life can disarm you. Though there is disagreement sometimes. “I think our friendship became strong.” “It was always strong.” Together we walk through the narrow alleys of the old city towards his home. Sunlight reflections follow us along the rolled down shutters of shops and stalls. He and his family keep an open door for those in need. For friends, and friends of friends, and groups of now school-less children, whose daily routine got disturbed because no classes are happening since weeks due to curfew and because the army has accommodated its newly arrived soldiers in several state schools’ buildings. People repeat this pattern of privately set up ‘curfew schools’ in several other places throughout the valley.
Cooking is not really her favourite activity, but I love the way she does fry spices, nose up in the air to make sure a good mix. Neither she nor her mother ever let me leave without having a second cup of salty nun chai. I sometimes payback in lemon tea. She has perfected her driving skills on some of the rougher roads of J&K. Her car takes me along on many days. The valley’s public transport is still not running in this shutdown autumn of 2016. Picking up people waiting at the roadsides she turns her Maruti into a small version of Sumo. We squeeze in while the car fills with kids, grownups, bags, pieces of conversation. Several grandmothers’ prayers the moment they climb on the back seats are still in my ear. “Stop being over-sensitive”, she says when we part.
A “welcome” in plastic letters is pinned on one side of his bedstead, incomplete. A polythene bag hanging on a hook, filled with knots and loops of yellow rope. A few signs and stickers frame the window. Otherwise, his room is bare. His sister points to the corner where he used to sit to take rest or a cup of tea. The last ‘signs’ he has left and an army bullet has left in him on a road of his village on an early morning in August. My eyes meet the mirror. Its reflection shows the back of the father, sitting on his son’s bed.
Early mornings in August around the days the South Asian subcontinent celebrates its independence from the British colonial oppressors on the roads of a village like many villages in Kashmir, several people are killed. A lot of roads in the valley have seen people coming out together to tell the state which claims to be theirs that they disagree with its claims. A lot of roads have seen this state’s soldiers doing what they are paid for, dispersing the protest marches, whereby many are left maimed, blinded, killed. Maintainance of law and order. Quite some roads have also seen passers-by just busy with their daily routines not returning home.
His family had cleared the room after he got killed on the road. Was it what they call a ‘stray bullet’? From a shelf right under the ceiling three yellow and pink plastic birds, his children’s toys, are peeking into my eyes. I walk towards the window. Green, gentle waves form the surface of the patch outside. Under my fingers, the window frame feels smooth and cool. “This is his work”, the father tells us. Carpentry has been his profession. The wood design reminds me of my parents’ house and the windows there, which grandfather and my mother’s brother had built when we were kids. Nobody has touched his workbench in the workshop next door. Wooden dust and locks garland metal.
The sound of her fingers flying over the keyboard. She is into words. And silences. Her own kind of rhythm. She creates words. She collects them. From others sometimes. Exchanges words with them. We exchange some. She gives me a few. One for my impatience. “Wait”. And later: “Get on your toes”. I remember the ventilator air playing with a fold of her scarf, the afternoon she recites thoughts about Gaza. “We give birth to your destruction, every time we make love— you count.” Some other afternoon we hike up the hilltop to the lately re-opened old fort. The army had closed the doors of the fort for the public when they turned it into one of its base camps in the 1990s after the proclamation of the Emergency state. The garden still contains scattered remnants of the paramilitary forces’ training: obstacle tracks, tripwire field, ropes pulled taut low over the ground to crawl through flat on your belly. From under a tent a metallic reflexion: A group of soldiers cleaning the pieces of their disassembled weapons. Her back against the granite of a window frame, eyes caught by some movement further down. “They walked into my dream silently. Stones became their pillows. Night healed their sore feet and bruised backs. Love-filled they walked ahead into labyrinths of the dream. Their kohl eyes never blinking.” Her breathless voice counting the steps of our running legs on the long stretching stairs downhill, fast, faster, as if relieved to be in the open again. Then we disappear in a wilderness of apricot trees.
He shows me his collection of mobile recordings. Filmed from inside their home. A visual diary. Window frames filled with bleak summer storm, thunder rumbling, window frames filled with streaming and then standing, standing water and floating dogs of the 2014 floods, filled with road and people and patrolling forces, filled with columns of clouds in dusk light, a muffled animal’s howl. It makes me feel like being inside the house’s head. Memories. “I can’t say why, but I do remember you in my prayers.”
From Srinagar, one has to switch the vehicle three to four times when travelling by public transport to the piece of land they chose to create a space where everyone can be student and teacher at the same time. They have negotiated it is all about engaging hands, minds, feet, hearts alike to make things grow and keep the fire burning. It is about trying to bring together what was, is and could be, in practice and theory. Topics already discussed sitting in that one corner on the grass under trees, before they by and by build the infrastructure, still roam in my head. How to efficiently generate energy while using as fewer resources as possible? How to grow your own food safe from the circles of multinational monopolies’ fertilizers and pesticides that harm soil, water, and our bodies? How to live together as if we were all equal? Their place has become a meeting site for people from many backgrounds. Tse kus, be kus, teli wan su kus? Do we keep thinking there needs to be a closing answer to this question?
Sometimes days or nights are too much. They leave you with no words. Or with not the right words. There is a disconnection from tears. They appear when you don’t think of them when doing something ordinary like brushing your teeth.
They tell us, their son recently started to trim the hair of people from the neighbourhood. The tools of his barbershop in the attic room are lying there in the shelf as if he has left only five minutes ago. Like nobody has touched them after he got killed on the road in the month of August. Next, to a heavy armchair, a green-white dryer dangling, still plucked in, dozens of small square shaped boxes filled with razor blades, neatly tucked in a leather belt’s pocket, waiting to get unwrapped to meet with the beard. The first layer of dust already started covering the colours. He had been on the road because he wanted to buy a newspaper.
With the leaves’ shades turning paler, army announces operation ‘Calm Down’. They ‘calm down’ during nights, when in hundreds of raids they pick people they identified during days protesting on the roads from their beds. The prisons fill with students, teachers, civil rights activists, lawyers, some political leaders,… Seven is said to be the age of the youngest inmate. During the day soldiers and paramilitary forces now work with chilli filled PAVA shells alongside the pellets to disperse the protesting people. The powder is so fine, it easily finds its way inside through the smallest chinks to stay with you for a while. My first unexpected encounter with it I mistake as an acute allergic reaction.
Inside a home on another day. The pounding of wood on stone, turning the dried chilli peppers to a pulp, adding spices, the laughter while handing the pestle round from her son to her mother-in-law to me to her to her son to… Long after my arms’ muscles become tired the sounds continue. Preparing for the next step, she dips her fingers in oil. “They will burn anyway for a couple of days”, she says with a shrug of shoulders and a half smile, hands already kneading and forming the dough into round shapes. Really red chilli cakes placed on newspaper to dry. A time-tested method to warm you up throughout the cold months. They will make my tongue burn later in winter.
The door opens. Dodging his outstretched arm, his children leave home, and over the small path that leads from the one-storey house through the faded winter garden, they come running to catch the bus to reach tuitions, satchels flying after them. He waits for us. His eyes are not visible behind the sunglasses. Like some others, the Indian soldiers ‘non-lethal’ pellets did not blind him completely. The vision in one eye came back. The ability to distinguish colours though not. With the help of colleagues, he has shifted his workplace from the collective workshop to a small backside room of his house some weeks ago. They also supported him to figure out a system for weaving the different colours without seeing them. I try to understand his numbers and pattern plans that guide the way how to transform individual twines into the form of one of these pashmina shawls. To finish a piece, he at the moment needs around double the time he used to in the past, he tells us while his wooden needle goes up and down and carefully adjusts the distances between the individual warp threads.
Hollywood, opposite Lambert Lane, second floor. The left corner table is ours, like the first time when I had come to Srinagar in 2011. Kashmiri-German session. The black tea like usually they serve in abundance and strong. I add some milk. My cup rests on the journal he brought along. His article about these last months. “Memoir of a siege”, the title reads. “...A crowd began to build up on the main street. I too joined it… people from the adjoining villages poured in and marched through our village… there were people from every social class — daily labourers, students, businessmen, doctors, teachers, old, young… “Azadi, Azadi, Azadi.” The roar amplified… a mass all-out uprising in the making that would soon spread across Kashmir and push the State almost over the precipice… ” We have one hour before he will go back to work. “Wait, wait, wait.” You can hear the excitement in his voice while he checks the notebook pages to assemble a short sentence with the few words he has learnt so far. “Frr-aulene Sarah ist r-ott.” He starts giggling. I join. German plus Kashmiri accent makes of an often said to sound rough language something that produces now smiles. Some letter combinations though we try and try in vain. Same applies for Kashmiri. “Enyim soi, lötschim panis.” “Hatte hoin, khette zang”.
The best way to test Kashmiri beginner skills turns out to be during sumo journeys on the highway from Srinagar to Jammu and vice versa. Knowing that one probably won’t meet the co-passengers again seems to create a kind of ‘safe’ speaking space. And be it this road or something else, these journeys often turn strangers into travel companions. The snow layers on this January afternoon become more persistent the higher we climb. Public and goods transport resumed after months of shutdown. Around Bon Dialgam from a conversation between two men sitting in the back of the Sumo I come to know about the Srinagar-Jammu-winter-oneway-system and that I have chosen the ‘Jammu day’. Unlikely to reach the other side and Patnitop tonight. Around Duru, we meet the end of the queue. Fresh flakes start falling. Like a huge iron worm, the vehicles slowly crawl further up the serpentines. Some kilometres away from Banihal tunnel in two rows we come to the day’s final hold. People try to arrange themselves in their cars for the next hours. With slightly guilty conscience I look behind, where four men probably taller than me share the back seats. Night sets in. Silhouettes in front of our windows, some truckers and sumo drivers in a discussion. Now and then the dark inside the car is lifted by flashing rear lights, a flaring match, conversation bits, a laughter. Ten people try to generate warmth against the snow cold. We exchange dried dates, clothes, one kangri pot goes round till its clambering coals fade. After the fruits are finished I decided to count the cars till the beginning of the jam. Cold air surrounds my head. Through the small corridor left in the middle of the road, I walk ahead, meeting some eyes behind steamy glass, some sleeping faces. Most of the drivers are still awake and out, night shift. They try to direct the vehicles in one single line, already preparing for the road clearing snow machine awaited for next morning: pushing, pulling, arranging in well-versed ways, routine, it seems, using free gaps for their manoeuvres. Against the slippery surface, they fix the trucks’ wheels with stones to keep safe their heavy loads awaited in the marketplaces of the cities. Morning twilight reveals the beginning of the queue. Further up towards the tunnel I see another line of trucks getting lost in the distance. Like out of nowhere a voice calls, with an offer for hot nun chai! My neighbour from last night whom I had lent my pheran, puts one of these small Bakirkhani bread into my hand.
The bulb for a second flickers, its glow wire’s reaction barely visible when he wakes us up at dawn. “Electricity does not easily find its way to these outer parts of the valley”, he says, lighting a match for the candles. In my estimate, the powerhouse of the Kishenganga Hydroelectric Plant built by the Indian National Hydro Power Corporation can’t be further away than five kilometres from their home. We follow him through a forest turned into a snow desert past crisscrossing bird traces and unknown footprints towards the lake. Boots crunch over frozen tractor wheel tracks, which reach till the shore. His hands, around 17 years younger than mine, resemble a flexible map reflecting the parameters of his profession. Using a small bucket, they rid the boat of overnight accumulated water, then fix some spots between the wooden planks where new drops appear with scrunched up polythene snippets. In the early morning light, mirror-like, the Wular, hazy blue and silent, keeps its secrets. We are four and the rim of our boat almost touches its water. Fishermen float by on our left, their fishing lines waiting to get strained. Suddenly objects appear, soaked, trundling just some centimetres beneath the surface or swimming in groups around an over-water plant or some bow net construction. First plastic yield. His paddle strokes take us deeper inside the lanes of the lake, the sand diggers’ calls become distant. Fingers act like forks. Between our feet, more flotsam gathers. A swallow’s cry. The deck sways as we change positions. His sister now steers the boat, while he combs through the undergrowth of some small islands, home of a group of horses. After the day’s work is done, boat tied to the lakefront, a sack filled with bottles, bulbs, abandoned chapels, unidentifiable plastic pieces extracted from the water’s body, in the pale gleam of the evening snow we start running towards white nothingness, two of us dancing in circles, making my head spin. Through the thicket of trees, a faint sound of Azaan seems to call us back to the houses.
Spring and summer… are on another page. I return in September.