Thursday, June 5, 2014

As the tide of the world turns...

As the tide of the world turns against freedom, I turn, inevitably against the world. There is nothing to be gained in this fight, I will be isolated, broken and destroyed, maybe my dearest ones will be too. But what do I have if I do not have my resistance? I acknowledge the madness of my rage, that it will lead to no good place, but it is also the madness of my life. If I cannot live free, I do not know how I would live at all.
Prudence, moderation, cool thinking, are the need of the hour, but I do not have these virtues, have never had. I am a hound of justice; I can only pursue a scent and attack the monster, even if the monster is too large and will break me. I can only howl in my rage and fear, knowing that my time has come, and there is nothing that I can do to put off this war.
Today I live in a country whose government considers me an enemy. Or if not an enemy, a nuisance, or an irrelevance. I consider it the same. There can be no compromise between us. Our conflict is basic. The very root of this government is based on the subjugation of people like me, and my every single instinct is to uproot this hideous thing, and cover my nostrils as its rots.
There are the survivors. Those who will think of tomorrow, of the future, of a better day in this land of ours, but I know this truth, there will be no better day while this thing survives, while it feeds on the power it has won. Its nature is to bend things to its way, and the longer it does that, the more it will have the power to bend others. Some will do so out of paltry gain, for the things that glitter, for the envy in other people’s eyes. Others will do it because they desire the odious things within themselves to be released, and feel that they will be able to do so under the darkness is now cast. Then there are the fools, there are always the fools, who think that this will not touch them, that after all, it is the others that are being targeted, that are being killed. Ah, the fools, they will always be with us, the sickness of humanity that we can never truly wash clean from our skins, the folly that is evil by another name, a selfishness that can see nothing beyond its own skin.
There are the wise, too, the unmoved, who see humanity for what it is: a flicker, a blink, beautiful, grotesque and truly, truly insignificant. They can look beyond this moment, they can look beyond all our moments, they can take in the long breath, and release it as slowly into the universe. They will not speak, but they might have counselled caution, would have said that rot arises from dead things, and maggots feed on corpses. It is only death that has brought out these diseased things, and that once the dying is done, these feeders on the dead will also die. Life is a reaching for the light, and it will not be forever bent. The soft root will break through concrete and steel, and the plant, once perched, will grow, will steal poison from the air, from the soil, and will clean this earth. The nature of things is clean, it is healthy, this rot cannot long survive.
But I am neither a survivor, nor am I of the wise. For me there is only confrontation, there is only death.  

Friday, August 23, 2013

I would like
to say that one thing
that needs to be said,
the word,
the sentence,
that sits like a rock
- not large, just large enough -
within my throat
and makes all life
just a gasping of breath
a long desperate set of wheezes
pleas upon pleas upon pleas
so intense
that they do not admit
the space for despair,
I would like to speak,
just once,
just the one thing,
just once.  

Monday, July 5, 2010

In Kashmir

As the airplane tyres touch the tarmac and I break the rules by turning on my mobile phone while the announcer is still saying, “Please do not turn on your mobile phones until the plane has come to a halt…” It takes a few seconds and then the signal comes up, immediately followed by an sms saying that I have a missed call. Just at that moment a pretty airhostess comes by and gives me a dirty look. “Sir…” she says disapprovingly.

I grin, apologise, and pocket the phone. For the first time I shall have a phone connection while travelling in the Valley. Mobile phones were banned in Kashmir until, after great resistance, the government finally gave permission. (The argument that clinched the deal, I am told, is that somebody argued that it would be a better way to monitor conversations.) Still those with pre-paid SIMs from mainland India, as I used to have, found themselves disconnected in the state (the same is true of Assam and other parts of the North-East.) It would have been a minor irritant in most places, but Kashmir is its own reality with its own risks.

The Price of a Call

Five years ago, when I was visiting Srinagar, I was rudely pulled out of a phone booth just as I was about to place a call. I had waited in line for a good twenty minutes and was pretty angry until I realised that everybody was running. The owner of the shop did not look to see if I owed him money, just pushed me out and slammed down the shutters as quickly as he could. Other people were rushing away as I made my way out the alley and it was only then that I started to pick out the distinct cracks of rifle fire and the occasional crump of grenades. A group of Lashkar-e-Toiba militants were attacking a bunker around the corner, just on Dal Lake.

I hate running, and since my little hotel was only twenty feet away, I leisurely strolled over, watching how the people on the street scattered. The Dalgate area, just as you turn the corner from the city to the beautiful lake, is always a crowded marketplace. It emptied within seconds. Even the heavily armed J&K policemen that had been joking around in the shop were gone, disappearing into their pickets, or towards where the firing still continued. The hotel manager looked up at me when I came up the stairs, and exclaimed, “Dekho Hindustan hum pe kitna zulm karta hai! (Look at how cruelly India treats us!)” It was a line I had heard him say numerous times over the last few days, whether talking about how a corrupt (Kashmiri) politician had pocketed the money for a road and built it in the opposite direction, or when the electricity went out. I mentioned that it looked like the LeT were the ones doing the attacking. “They are just attacking the military,” he said, dismissing my intervention, “the army will shoot all over the place.”

This was not an argument I was going to win, so I retired to my room. Once there I realised that the wall full of windows that I had so liked seemed rather unattractive when there was firing happening down the street. The only place that was cemented was the bathroom. I could always hide there. But what if a bullet ricocheted in through the bathroom door, how would I explain being shot in the loo? The potential for embarrassment was far too great. I opened up “The Brothers Karamazov” and started reading. An hour or so later, while the firing still continued in a sporadic manner, I had fallen asleep.

Changing Times

The times had changed since 2005. Or so I had been told. I was not so sure. While the central government had made a number of good noises removing bunkers and some small number of troops, the Amarnath agitation in 2008 and the Shopian case in 2009 had led to massive negative campaigns. Worst of all the dual peace process, between India-Pakistan, and New Delhi-Srinagar seemed to have come to a standstill. In a violence hit area like Kashmir there are only two ways for things to go: they either improve or they go bad. There is no such thing as maintaining status quo, and with the issue on the backburner it looked like things were not going well.

A young Kashmiri politician, one of the more dynamic and intelligent men in the Valley, had said to me a few months ago, “Two years back, I would have told you that militancy is finished. Now I know of militants finding shelter just out of Srinagar.” To compound all of that, in recent protests a number of young men had been badly injured by tear gas shells, some of them killed. One of them was in the hospital as I arrived, fighting for his life after a tear gas canister had hit him in the head.

Irony on Earth

I snapped out of my reverie as the airplane came to a stop, and in the true disciplined style of South Asian air passengers, we fell all over each other. It was worth it when we got out. Coming from the 40C plus heat of Delhi to the 20C of Sringar was a balm to the soul.

Outside the airport a driver was waiting with my name spelled incorrectly among a huge number of people looking hopefully touting names scrawled on pieces of paper, the smarter ones with little boards. One of them had a handwritten sign which said, “Welcome to heaven on earth” in permanent marker. I wonder if he was being hopeful, or ironic. Probably he was doing neither, just using Shahjahan’s favourite quote as it has always been used: as a sales pitch.

To see real irony you have to get further ahead. The airport was attacked by the LeT some years ago so there is a now a security gate about a kilometre away from the airport from where the checking starts. And here, on a large billboard, the quote is reproduced, “If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.” It is not ascribed to the Mughal Emperor, instead you have the name of the Central Reserve Police Force.

If this is our strategy to win hearts and minds, no wonder we are failing.

Within the town, where the heavily armed police and paramilitary are either on the street, or behind barbed wire enclosed bunkers, you find the same ham-handed attitude. On the bunker is scrawled something along the lines of: Aap ke suraksha, humari pratibadhiyata (Your protection, our determination). Somebody obviously thought it sounded snazzy; except it is written only in Hindi, and in no other language, not even Urdu, the state language of J&K. And who uses words like ‘pratibadhiyata’? Even a fairly proficient Hindi speaker would stumble over such a word. It is obviously not a message for the Kashmiri population, and it is also contradicted forcefully by the reality. If you are hiding in a bunker behind barbed wire, the only person you are protecting is yourself, not the people outside reading your graffiti.


Not all things Indian are so thought out, or so badly received. The new ‘happening’ place in Srinagar is CCD which opened a few months back. That may be CafĂ© Coffee Day to the unlettered, but for those in the know it is only referred to by its initials. Of course in Kashmir it has its own bizarre touch. Most people sit in the garden attached to it, and the space allows you to order both from CCD and the barbeque at “Solomon’s”. The trout is most excellent, and the company includes foreigners lounging to see the World Cup on TV, media people and politicians, both mainstream and separatist. The JKLF was planning a Gandhian ‘jail bharo’ campaign, and a friend suggested that I should join. “It’ll be perfect for you. Look at how many great writers have spent a little time in jail.”

I suggested that I might not be made for greatness, and excused myself. What really interested me was the train.

To Qazigund

The fabled Kashmir train project is supposed to link the Valley to the rest of the country. Currently it only runs 120 kms within the Valley starting from Qazigund, just 30 odd kms from the Banihal tunnel that marks the division between Jammu district and Kashmir district, to Baramulla in the north, 60 kms from the LoC. Manmohan Singh flagged off the latest bit in October 2009, and I keep hearing contradictory reports about it: it’s a failure, it’s a success. The fact that militants have targeted it twice proves nothing here or there, militants being militants, they have their own agenda.

It takes me half an hour to go from the centre of town to the Srinagar train station. There are no feeder buses, but autos and shared taxis are freely available. The patdown and security drill is familiar, but nowhere near as heavyhanded as at the Secretariat which features four metal detectors and five pat downs before you are allowed to say who you want to meet. Maybe this is because everybody at the station looks like an average person. The ‘important’ people travel by cars, usually bulletproof cars. If you are Omar Abdullah you travel in a ten-vehicle convoy with your bulletproof Tata Safari in the middle, with its flashy Sanawar sticker on the back window, and ordinary people being swept aside for you as you claim the road. No sir, if you are important, sir, you are not at the train station, sir.

The price of the tickets also reflects this reality. The most expensive ones, from Qazigund to Baramulla, cost all of 22 rupees. My ticket to Qazigund from Srinagar costs 13. A train journey is not likely to pinch your pocket. But it is not the cheapness of the ticket that is the big surprise, but what I find in the train.

Thodi Si Azaadi

Each cabin has about 90 seats, and there is standing room only. The only security people are Railway Security Force personnel armed with submachine guns that stand in the space between cabins. This is the one place where I have seen such a large group of Kashmiris who do not have police/paramilitary/military personnel looking over their shoulders. The ease, laughter, and lightness is new and surprising. The boisterousness subsides slightly when the Ticket Inspector arrives and the Railway Security Force man peeps in. But as soon as the door closes, the high spirits resume peppered with jokes even, or maybe especially, at the expense of the Ticket Inspector as he goes about his business, half-joking himself.

Most of the passengers disembark in Anantnag and I have room to breathe, and relax. The train tracks curve up towards Qazigund, the snow covered peaks not too distant, and I am struck again by this train. For once in this stupid conflict, at great expense and probably for many ulterior motives, the government has done some good directly for the people. Who would have thought it?

The next day a boy in the hospital dies, protests and killings resume, and I am left to wonder why good things are so very difficult to come by in this lovely place.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Home is the hammer

Home is the hammer
that drives you to your knees,
it is the arrow
that punctures your lung,
to leave you drowning
in your own blood,
the long, serrated knife
that slides past your ribs,
cleaves your liver,
and stays.
Home is where you learn
the difference
between being humbled
and being humiliated,
your face in the dust,
bile up your nose,
vomit in your mouth,
with neither honour
in your right hand,
nor hope
in your left,
just a close, clear vision
of dirt.
Home is the hammer.